When Could Your Use of Social Media Violate the Hatch Act?

The Office of Special Counsel has issued new guidelines to help federal employees understand how to stay within Hatch Act guidelines when using social media.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has issued Hatch Act social media guidelines for federal employees which clearly spell out situations in which it is and is not acceptable to engage in political activity via social media outlets.

Two new documents were released – one is the Hatch Act Guidance on Social Media, a longer document that lists specific examples and scenarios that would or would not be acceptable, and the other is the Social Media Quick Guide which presents a checklist of various scenarios to show when certain activities may or may not be done.

OSC says in its guidance that generally all federal employees may use social media without violating the Hatch Act if they remember three prohibitions:

  1. On Duty or in the Workplace Prohibition – Employees may not engage in political activity while on duty or in the federal workplace.
  2. 24/7 Prohibition – Employees may not knowingly solicit, accept, or receive a political contribution for a political party, candidate in a partisan race, or partisan political group.
  3. 24/7 Prohibition – Employees may not use their official authority or influence to affect the outcome of an election.

The lengthier guide goes into detail on each scenario by way of different examples. This is one example it gives that would violate the Hatch Act by using social media when at work:

You are on duty and looking at Facebook on your personal cell phone. You see that a friend posted a message encouraging others to vote for members of a certain political party. You may not like or share that message while you are on duty.

Federal employees are also prohibited from using an alias to engage in political activity while at work. The OSC guidance also provides this example:

Your name is Jane Smith, but you create a Twitter account as Jane Jones. You are at work, on duty, and looking at your alias Twitter account on your personal cell phone. An actor you follow on Twitter posted a negative message about a political party. You may not like or retweet that message either as Jane Smith or Jane Jones while on duty or in the workplace.

Many other examples are included in the guidance document. OSC also has information on its website about the Hatch Act.

“This office routinely receives questions from federal employees and the public about when social media use violates the Hatch Act,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said. “With social media so accessible, employees want to know what political activity they can and can’t engage in on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites and stay clearly within the law. OSC’s new user‐friendly guidance will help employees understand their obligations at a glance. It’s designed to improve compliance with the law. If employees know their legal obligations and still violate the law, OSC will bring cases accordingly, but first, employees have to be well‐informed of their Hatch Act restrictions.”

Hatch Act Violation Leads to 50 Day Suspension

OSC is releasing the new guidance documents at the same time that it announced a Postal employee was suspended for 50 days for sharing pro-Bernie Sanders postings between March and July 2016.

According to OSC:

The employee’s Facebook postings requested that followers vote for Bernie Sanders; disseminated the political platform and campaign promises of Bernie Sanders; requested that followers contact their super delegates and bring pressure to bear in favor of Bernie Sanders; and generally disparaged the candidates opposing Bernie Sanders.

The employee also wore in and out of work for at least a week a USPS‐logoed cardigan sweater with a Bernie Sanders campaign sticker on it. While at work, the employee draped the cardigan with the sticker on the back of a work chair, where it was visible to others.

OSC said that the Postal Service had provided the employee with Hatch Act training prior to the violations, and that the employee’s supervisor had even conducted a mandatory “Standup Talk” just three months before the violations began, which included information about the Hatch Act and social media use.

OSC and the Postal Service

The Postal Service itself was reprimanded by OSC not long ago for violating the Hatch Act. The agency provided 2,776 days off to employees (leave without pay) selected by the union to assist in helping to achieve the union’s political objectives during the 2016 election.

The OSC concluded in a report that the agency was engaging in “institutional bias” as a result of its actions granting leave without pay in order to further the unions’ political activities. As a result, the actions by the agency were in violation of the Hatch Act, however, no disciplinary action was recommended. For details, see The Hatch Act, Unions and Postal Service.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.