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No Mixing Politics and Facebook: OSC Addresses Employees and Agencies Use of Social Media

Federal employees could become a “friend,” a “fan” or even “like” a Facebook page a political party or candidate created, but they cannot do so during work hours or while in a federal workspace, according to new guidance the Office of Special Counsel has issued.

In a nine-page document of frequently asked questions it published recently, OSC addresses employees’ and agencies’ use of social media and how to comply with the 1939 Hatch Act. The law regulates the political activities of federal employees, such as using their authority to exert influence over an election.

While at work, employees cannot engage in political activity, which includes suggesting others to like, friend, or become a fan of a political party, group or candidate. They also cannot write a blog expressing support or opposition for a political candidate while on duty, but can do so after work hours and in a location other than a federal office.

Employees who list their official titles on their Facebook pages are permitted to answer the profile question that asks political views, because identifying the party they support is not a political activity, the report says.

Under the Hatch Act, federal employees are prohibited from soliciting, accepting or receiving political contributions at any time, which includes not using social media to seek contributions to a political party, candidate or group. They also are forbidden from posting links to the contribution page for any of those entities.

In addition, the report discusses what employees who are Facebook friends with subordinate employees can post when advocating for a political group. The messages are allowed only if a supervisor’s statements are directed to all Facebook friends, such as posting an item in his or her status window. The report suggests that is similar to placing a political sign in a yard, which, while supporting a candidate, can be seen by anybody on the street, including subordinates.

OSC policy does not allow federal employees to advocate for a political group by sending a Facebook message to a subordinate, because such activity is akin to distributing literature on behalf of those entities or individuals.

The new guidelines also cover what an employee can do on somebody else’s Facebook page or blog. OSC says employees are permitted to post a link to a political organization on someone else’s Facebook page or blog, but the link cannot lead directly to a website where a visitor can contribute money to a party, group or candidate.

Links are forbidden from being posted during work hours or while an individual is in a federal workplace. Some employees must follow more restrictive guidelines, including those who work for the CIA, the Federal Election Commission, the FBI, the Office of Special Counsel and the Secret Service. These employees are not allowed to link to political organizations or movements at any time because that would be considered taking an active part in a partisan politics, the report says.

If employees were to create alias Facebook or Twitter accounts, they still would be subject to the Hatch Act, OSC noted. All employees are forbidden from creating a Facebook or Twitter page in their official capacity, such as a Cabinet member to advocate for or against a political entity. Such activity must remain on the employee’s personal pages.

For agencies, almost all politically related posts on their pages are prohibited. An agency’s Facebook page, such as its official website, “should only be used to share information about the agency’s official business and mission and should remain politically neutral,” the report noted. Agencies also are prohibited from posting a news article about an official’s speech at a political fundraiser or rally for a partisan political candidate.

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Christine Pierpoint

Thanks, Candace for the practical guidance. This is a great use case to consider when writing social media policy for your agency.