In case someone wasn’t aware, it’s an election year.
The commercials are on during every break in broadcasting. Social media sites are flooded with advertisements and claims from every political source imaginable. Friends, family and even complete strangers argue in the comment sections.
How does a military member negotiate this treacherous path? Easy — follow the Department of Defense guidelines on politics and voting found in DoD Directive 1344.10, “Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces” and Air Force Instruction 51-902, “Political Activities by Members of the U.S. Air Force.”
“In today’s age, especially with social media, if you’re saying things online or endorsing someone or doing something in a way that’s not in line with the AFI, you could potentially get yourself in trouble,” said Capt. Matthew Cole, 86th Airlift Wing chief of administrative law. “It’s important to know what your rights are, but also what your restrictions are.”
Cole gave the example of someone posting on their Facebook page about their opinion on a presidential candidate. Airmen are within their rights to say they support a candidate, however, they cannot attempt to motivate others to vote for their candidate. Even if an Airman doesn’t use their rank or status as a military member to attract voters to their candidate, attempting to entice voters to a specific candidate is still a violation under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The best way avoid any potential pitfall is to put a disclaimer at the end of the post stating that the views and opinions expressed are those of an individual and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Air Force, Cole said.
Airmen should remember that as a military member — in and out of uniform — they are a representative of the armed forces and are subject to the UCMJ.
“Punishments vary depending on the level of the violation,” said Cole. “If you’re in uniform standing next to Candidate A saying, ‘I love this woman,’ that’s a much bigger deal than just saying, ‘I like Candidate B,’ on Facebook. It will be up to what a court decides.”
Punishment could be a monetary fine or a reduction in rank, Cole said.
While subject to the UCMJ on or off duty, it doesn’t mean Airmen can’t participate or express their political opinions.
“The general rule whenever putting anything online, or saying or doing anything, is to always remember, am I doing this of my own will and in my own capacity as an individual or am I doing this on behalf of the Air Force,” said Cole. “It’s always important to distinguish yourself and what you’re saying and doing from the Air Force.”
The AFI is a good source of information regarding specific instructions to follow during this political season, said Cole.
AFI 51-902 states Airmen may “Register to vote, vote, and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Air Force or DoD.”
It also adds that Airmen may “Promote and encourage others to exercise their voting franchise, if such promotion does not constitute use of their official authority or influence to interfere with the outcome of any election.”
“It’s obviously ok to say, ‘go vote,’” said Cole. “In fact, I’m sure the Air Force would encourage you to encourage others to vote. If you encourage people to vote for a specific candidate, then you’re crossing the line.”
When it talks about not using official position, it means that commanders, first sergeants, superintendents, or supervisors may not force someone to vote. If someone feels intimidated to vote or an Airman feels they might get in trouble, then it’s no longer promoting general voting, it’s more like a threat, said Cole.
Airmen may join political clubs and attend meetings while not in uniform, sign petitions for potential legislation, and write letters to editors or commentaries as long as the letter clearly states that the opinions expressed are those of an individual and not representative of the Air Force or DoD.
“If you can avoid it, don’t sign your name with your rank,” said Cole. “Also, don’t mention that you’re in the Air Force. It’s not necessarily 100 percent not allowed, but it’s just highly encouraged that you distance yourself from the Air Force and make it known that you’re writing this based on your own personal view and not in any way representing the Air Force.”
On the other hand, Airmen may not march or ride in partisan parades, display large political signs, posters or banners, use or allow use of their image as billboards, posters or signs; and more.
For more information, read AFI 51-902 to ensure compliance during this political season, or contact the 86th Airlift Wing Legal Office at 480-5911.