Hatch Act Protects Freedom of Political Speech on Social Media… to a Point

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By on March 26, 2017 in Human Resources with 0 Comments

Law book with a wooden judge's gavel on a desk

Lately, federal employees have been using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to air their views about the Trump administration, and their prevailing concern has been whether they can get into trouble for doing so.

The answer depends on what social media account, whose equipment they use and what time of day they spread their political beliefs.

The Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012 spells out the government’s policy on federal employees using social media to share their personal political beliefs. In general, federal employees may say whatever they want on Facebook and Twitter, provided they are not at work when doing so, not using an account linked to their job or their agency (nor self-identifying as a federal employee in the post), and/or not using agency equipment. This rule extends to both Lesser Restricted and Further Restricted Employees as the Hatch Act defines them.

But what about federal workers who use an alias on social media containing an agency name, such as the “AltNASA” and “ActualEPAFacts” Twitter accounts that popped up in the last four months? Again, they too are protected by the Hatch Act as long as the employee is posting on his own time and using his own equipment, and the accounts are not linked to an official email account from any agency.

With those caveats above in mind, those who violate the Hatch Act are subject to any one of these penalties, depending on the severity of the offense:

  • Reprimand
  • Suspension
  • Reduction in grade
  • A civil fine of no more than $1,000
  • Termination
  • Being barred from federal employment for no more than five years

Political Appointees

Politically appointed agency heads have a different problem than their employees when it comes to airing their political views on social media. Even if he/she makes a statement using their personal social media account on their own time, Agency heads still must report to the President, who has the authority to ask for their resignation or may fire them outright for statements made or for any reason at all. And, those political views could cost agency funding if the President and Congress were offended by what was said.

Just like other Americans, federal employees are free to say whatever they want to – just as long as they do so on their own time and with their own computers, and without involving their agencies whatsoever.

© 2019 Mathew B. Tully, Esq.. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Mathew B. Tully, Esq..

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About the Author

Mathew B. Tully is a founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. He concentrates his practice on representing federal government employees and military personnel and can be reached at [email protected]. To schedule a meeting with one of the firm’s federal employment law attorneys call 202-787-1900. The information in this column is not intended as legal advice.

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