Political activities while in the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Edward Lucas
  • 341st Missile Wing Judge Advocate

With the upcoming 2020 general election, it is important for Airmen to understand how they can participate in the political process and the restrictions placed on them as members of the armed forces.

Air Force Instruction 51-508, Political Activities, Free Speech and Freedom of Assembly of Air Force Personnel, prohibit or limit some of these political activities in order to maintain good order and discipline.

Airmen have multiple avenues for participation in political activities and are not excluded from the political process.

Air Force members MAY do the following
Register to vote, vote, and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Air Force or Defense Department.

Promote and encourage others to exercise their voting rights, if such promotion does not constitute use of their official authority or influence to interfere with the outcome of any election.

Join a partisan or nonpartisan political club and attend its meetings when not in uniform, but not in any official capacity nor listed as a sponsor. The restriction on wearing the uniform to meetings also applies to retired and Reserve Component members.

Attend partisan and nonpartisan political fundraising activities, meetings, rallies, debates, conventions, or activities as a spectator when not in uniform and when no inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement can reasonably be drawn.

Serve as an election official, if such service is not as a representative of a partisan political party, does not interfere with the performance of military duties, is performed when not in uniform, and receives secretary of the Air Force's prior approval.

Sign a petition for specific legislative action or a petition to place a candidate's name on an official election ballot, if the signing does not obligate the member to engage in partisan political activity and is done as a private citizen and not as a representative of the Air Force or DOD.

Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper expressing the member's personal views concerning public issues or political candidates, if such action is not part of an organized letter-writing campaign or a solicitation of votes for or against a political party or partisan political cause or candidate. If the letter identifies the member as being on active-duty status - or if the member is otherwise reasonably identifiable as a military member - the letter must clearly state that the views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Air Force or DOD. Members must apply this principle to personal views written for publication in all forms of print and electronic media (i.e., magazines, social media, blogs).

Write a personal letter, not for publication, expressing preference for a specific political candidate or cause, if the action is not part of an organized letter-writing campaign on behalf of a partisan political cause or candidate.

Make monetary contributions to a political organization, party, or committee favoring a particular candidate or slate of candidates, subject to limitations under Title 2, United States Code, Section 441a and Title 18, United States Code, Section 607.

Display a political bumper sticker on the member's private vehicle (see 'shall not' section below for further guidance).

Wear a political button or t-shirt when not in uniform, performing military duties, or under circumstances that could reasonably give rise to an appearance of official endorsement.

Participate fully in the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Air Forces members SHALL NOT do the following
Participate in partisan political fundraising activities (except as noted above), rallies, conventions, management of campaigns, or debates, either on one's own behalf or on that of another. This prohibition applies whether the individual is in uniform or not, and regardless of whether an inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement may be drawn. Participation includes more than mere attendance as a spectator.

Use official authority or influence to interfere with an election, to affect its course or outcome, to solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, or to require or solicit political contributions from others.

Allow, or cause to be published, partisan political articles, letters, or endorsements signed or written by the member that solicit votes for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause. This is distinguished from a letter to the editor as permitted under the conditions described above.

Serve in any official capacity or be listed as a sponsor of a partisan political club.

Speak before a partisan political gathering, including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate or cause.

Participate in any radio, television, or other program or group discussion as an advocate of a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.

Conduct a political opinion survey under the auspices of a partisan political club or group, or distribute partisan political literature. Perform clerical or other duties for a partisan political committee or candidate during a campaign, on an election day, or after an election day during the process of closing out a campaign.

Solicit or otherwise engage in fund-raising activities in federal offices or facilities, including military reservations, for any partisan political party, candidate, or cause.

March or ride in a partisan political parade.

Display a political sign, banner, or poster (as distinguished from a bumper sticker) on a private vehicle.

Display a large political sign, poster, banner, or similar device visible to the public at one's residence on a military installation, even if that residence is part of a privatized housing development.

Participate in any organized effort to provide voters with transportation to the polls, if the effort is organized by or associated with a partisan political party, cause, or candidate.

Sell tickets for, or otherwise actively promote, partisan political dinners and similar fundraising events.

Attend any partisan political event as an official representative of the Air Force or DOD, even without actively participating, except as a member of a joint Armed Forces color guard at the opening ceremonies of the national convention of a political party recognized by the Federal Elections Commission, or as otherwise authorized by the SECAF.

Make a campaign contribution to, or receive or solicit a campaign contribution from, any other military member on active duty, or an officer or employee of the federal government for promoting a political objective or cause. Any contributions not prohibited by this paragraph remain subject to the gift provisions of sections 2635.301-2635.304 of Title 5, Code of Federal Regulations.

Participate, while in uniform, in any activity such as unofficial public speeches, interviews, picket lines, marches, rallies or any public demonstration which may imply Air Force sanction of the cause for which the demonstration or activity is conducted. Authorization to wear the uniform under certain circumstances may be granted in accordance with DOD Instruction 1334.01, Wearing of the Uniform, as implemented by Air Force Policy Directive 36-29, Military Standards, and AFI 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel.

Engage in the public or organized recruitment of others to become partisan candidates for nomination or election to a civil office.

Commissioned officers shall not use contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the secretary of Defense, the secretary of a military department, the secretary of Homeland Security, or the governor or legislature of any state, commonwealth, or possession in which the member is on duty or present as prohibited and punishable under Article 88, Uniform Code of Military Justice.

With the exception of the immediately preceding prohibition, and subject to any other restrictions in law, a member of the Air Force not on active duty may take the actions and participate in the prohibited activities provided the member is not in uniform and does not otherwise act in a manner that could reasonably give rise to the inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement.

Activities not expressly prohibited above may be contrary to the spirit and intent of this Instruction. Any activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating the Air Force or DOD with a partisan political activity or is otherwise contrary to the spirit and intention of this Instruction shall be avoided.

Military members who engage in any of the prohibited activities are subject to prosecution under Article 92, UCMJ.

U.S. government civilian employees are also subject to political activities restrictions under the Hatch Act. For more information, civilian employees should refer to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel's Federal Employee Hatch Act Information page.