If you work for the federal government, your Twitter or Facebook profile can show a photo of you hugging Ben Carson or Hillary Clinton. But you can’t share, tweet, ”like,” friend, follow, comment on or retweet anything your candidate says or does when you’re on the clock.
If your job is in intelligence or law enforcement, you can ”like” or comment on a tweet from a candidate when you’re not working — but you can’t share or retweet it even when you’re off duty.
And if you’re on a coffee or lunch break at the office, you must walk out of your building to post anything on social media that would be considered partisan, even from your personal smart phone or laptop. Even from the bathroom or cafeteria.
These are the rules of the road issued Thursday for federal employees this presidential campaign season. With so much of the action by candidates and political groups on Facebook, Twitter and other digital platforms, federal officials say they’ve been inundated with questions from employees about what they can and cannot do.
And as technology and the Internet keep our work and home lives more intertwined than ever, the boundaries are blurrier and the rules to unblur them more complicated —some say way too complicated.
“We’re in a world where social media is everywhere,” said Nick Schwellenbach, spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the rules on political activity for federal workers. “Everyone has a smart phone, and it’s very easy not to know where the line is. We hope our guidance lets people know what their rights are and what to do.’’
Furthermore, the era of Twitter and Facebook has made it easier for federal employees to violate the rules, officials said.
Political activity is governed by the Hatch Act, a 1939 law designed to curb the appearance of political partisanship among federal employees. It allows employees to support candidates on social media when they’re not on the clock, but prohibits them at any time from urging others to donate to those candidates or receive political contributions. So a civil servant can put up a yard sign supporting Donald Trump, but can’t raise money for Trump or tell his friends to.
Before Twitter and Facebook, the law was easier to follow. Now that our soapbox is digital, the rules have become much more nuanced.
“You don’t want this to be looking like the tax code,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. “Isn’t it better to have simple rules that employees can follow?”
The guidance out Thursday allows federal workers to display campaign logos or a photos of candidates as profile pictures on their personal Facebook or Twitter accounts. They’re the digital equivalent of lawn signs.
But as the Office of Special Counsel explains, “because a profile picture accompanies most actions on social media, employees would not be permitted, while on duty or in the workplace, to post, “share,” “tweet,” or “retweet” any items on Facebook or Twitter, since each such action would show their support for a partisan group or candidate in a partisan race, even if the content of the action is not about those entities.”
Hundreds of thousands of employees who work at the Justice Department, law enforcement or intelligence agencies have further restrictions. Until this year, they could not so much as ”like” a candidate’s postings on Facebook. But the government decided that merely liking and commenting off-duty — but only these — are First Amendment rights that do not constitute a violation of the Hatch Act. But retweeting, tweeting or otherwise sharing partisan campaign postings fall in the category of actively distributing political campaign materials. They’re forbidden.
The American Civil Liberties Union calls this parsing an overreach of federal power.
“It’s a bizarre distinction,” said Lee Rowland, an ACLU senior staff attorney. “They’re slicing up the digital platform very finely and irrationally.” She said a “like” can easily signify an endorsement of a candidate much more than a retweet, which can be more neutral.
“It’s a massive and inappropriate restriction on employees,” Rowland said.
The special counsel’s office emphasized that no federal employee can “like” a post that solicits partisan political contributions.