Government Matters looks at the Office of Special Counsel’s new Hatch Act guidance, and how it could affect the way federal employees use the internet.
In February, the Office of Special Counsel released a new set of guidelines for federal employees, with a focus on preventing social media Hatch Act violations. The Hatch Act states that a federal employee cannot express partisan political speech while representing the government, or using their status to influence an election. While the law has been updated since it was originally enacted in the 1940s, OSC determined that federal workers needed new guidance, thanks to some recent cases involving the internet. During the 2016 election, a postal worker liked and shared messages supporting Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, because these 116 Facebook posts were made while on the clock, the employee was suspended for 50 days. In 2017, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley retweeted a campaign endorsement of South Carolina congressman Ralph Norman by President Trump. Following a Hatch Act complaint to OSC from the political advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Haley was told that her retweet was considered a violation, and to refrain from similar social media activity in the future. In the new guidance, there are strict prohibitions as to how employees can use social media while in a government building. “You stay at work during your lunch break and check Facebook on your personal cell phone. A Facebook friend posted a message about an upcoming event supporting a candidate in a partisan race. Even if you are not in a pay status during your lunch break, you may not like or share that post while you are in the workplace,” according to an example provided in the guidelines. While teleworking, federal employees still can’t engage in political activity on the clock, but their lunch hour is safe to tweet, like or share partisan speech. An OSC representative told Government Matters that while it is too soon to tell if the guidance has curbed violations on social media, multiple agencies have requested workforce training to prevent future missteps.