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Caution encouraged during election season

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- With the election season in full swing, service members may become swept up in the sea of political fervor and feel the need to voice their opinion above the masses. However, there are many possible pitfalls a uniformed warrior can fall into while demonstrating their political stance.

Certain acts of supporting one political candidate or party can put an Airman in a world of hurt, so researching the pertinent guidance becomes critical for anyone wishing to get on their soapbox.

"Generally, Air Force members may register to vote and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the armed forces," explained Maj. James R. Johnson, a reserve judge advocate with the 460th Space Wing Legal Office. "A specific list of permitted activities can be found in Air Force Instruction 51-902."

AFI 51-902, Political Activities by Members of the U.S. Air Force, defines what service members may not do. The AFI states members may not participate in partisan political fundraising activities, rallies or conventions; use official influence to interfere with an election or to solicit votes for a particular candidate; participate in any radio, television or other program as an advocate of a partisan political party, candidate or cause; march or ride in a partisan political parade; or display a large political sign, banner or poster on a private vehicle or one's residence on a military installation.

These are just a few examples from the AFI. If an individual does wish to participate, they should reference all pertinent regulations before engaging in any political activity.

If a service member partakes in political activity in violation of the AFI, the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes provisions for these situations.

"It is important to note that Air Force members who engage in any of the prohibited activities listed in paragraph four are subject to prosecution under Article 92, UCMJ, in addition to any other applicable provision of the UCMJ or federal law," said Johnson.

However, getting out of the house to participate in partisan political activities isn't the only way individuals can violate their guidance. Social media plays a major role in the lives of many active-duty service members, but could also lead to prohibited political actions.

"An (active-duty) service member may generally express his or her own personal views on public issues or political candidates via social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, or personal blogs, much the same as they would be permitted to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper," explained Johnson. "If a social media site/post identifies the member as on (active duty), or if the member is otherwise reasonably identifiable as an (active-duty) member, then the entry (should) clearly and prominently state that the views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense."

Service members may not post or link to Facebook pages or Twitter accounts of a political party, partisan political candidate, campaign or cause because such activity is the equivalent of distributing literature on behalf of those entities and is considered engaging in partisan political activity, added Johnson.

There are many possible pitfalls into which an unaware Airman could fall, so it is crucial that service members familiarize themselves with all specific instructions, regulations and guidance.

"I think it is important to reiterate the fact that Air Force members are encouraged to participate in the political process but must be cognizant of the fact that the military establishment must appear to remain politically neutral through the avoidance of partisan politics and/or any implication that the Air Force is in any way endorsing a particular candidate or political view," stated Johnson.

With the hotly debated presidential election only a few weeks away, additional resources for service members wishing to voice their opinions can be found in AFI 51-902 and Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces.
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