Political activity and the military

  • Published
  • By Capt. Raj Mathew
  • 42nd Air Base Wing chief of general law
George Washington famously said, "When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen." This means that, by and large, members of the military do not lose their rights under the Constitution (unless there is a compelling government interest in restricting them.) However, one of the founding principles of the republic is the subservience of the military to civilian authority.

The military cannot be a tool or ally of any specific political party, philosophy or candidate. If it becomes such, or if it is perceived as such, it leads us down a constitutionally dangerous path. The Department of Defense, therefore, places definite limits on political activity and activism among members of the military.

The most relevant document is DOD directive 1344.10, dated Feb. 19, 2008. With all of the information available, it is important to remember that as members and employees of the United States armed forces, which includes active duty, reservists and Air Force civilians, there are certain rules we need to be aware of to keep from crossing the line when it comes to political activities.

While voting is an important constitutional right, it is also important to remember that military members and civilian employees also must follow laws and regulations created under the Constitution, some of which restrict our political activities.

One of these laws is the Hatch Act, which severely limits the partisan political activities of federal government employees. The Hatch Act underpins a line of government regulations, including Air Force Instruction 51-902, Political Activities by Members of the U.S. Air Force. This is a punitive AFI, meaning military personnel may be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for violating certain provisions of the instruction.

Keeping all the rules and regulations as well as our service in the military in mind, it is important to remind ourselves what Air Force members are permitted to do with regard to participation in the political process.

American citizens have the right to vote. However, because of the nature of our service in the military, there are certain limitations of individual political expression to eliminate any appearance of using our position in the military to influence others.

This is why our Airmen need to be very careful about making politically-related comments, even through informal venues, such as personal Facebook pages. For instance, military members are welcome to attend political rallies and meetings, but they cannot appear in uniform. Additionally, service members cannot attend in an official capacity or sponsor an event.

The bottom line is that there cannot be any appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate or cause by the Air Force because of participation in a political event. Airmen are welcome to be spectators at political events in their personal capacity, but they cannot become participants, such as making public speeches.

Lawn signs and bumper stickers are common ways to express support for a candidate during the election season. However, lawn signs are prohibited within government-provided housing on the installation. Small bumper stickers are permitted on vehicles, but large signs or banners are not.

If you are participating in political activities beyond simply voting, it is important that you have a complete understanding of what is permissible for Air Force members under Air Force Instruction 51-902, Political Activities by Members of the Air Force, and to understand that violations of this AFI may be punishable under article 88 and article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or other federal laws or regulations.

If you have questions, call the legal office at 953-2786, and one of our attorneys will be able to answer questions.