Social Media and the Hatch Act

Created in 1939, the Hatch Act limits the amount of political activity federal employees may take in an official capacity. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), who enforces the Act, further defines political activity as “any activity directed at the success or failure of a political party or partisan political group… or candidate in a partisan race” while on duty or in the workplace. The boom of social media has made this delineation more confusing, and OSC is attempting to educate federal employees on how to avoid violating this Act.

On June 19, 2017, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, retweeted the president’s endorsement of a congressional candidate for South Carolina. OSC has since found her guilty of violating the Hatch Act, even though the tweet appeared on her personal Twitter account instead of her government Twitter account.

She was still found as violating the Hatch act due to the fact that her personal page was still representative of her work as a U.S. Ambassador, thereby constituting political activity while on duty. Haley used her personal page to publish other Ambassador information, and this was the account she linked to on websites pertaining to her ambassadorship. OSC determined that she would not incur any penalties for this incident, as the rest of her posts were not in violation of the Hatch Act.

OSC states that the age of social media makes it easier for federal employees to violate the Hatch Act, since social media allows for spontaneous posting and is seen as more casual than other means of communicating. To avoid violating the Hatch Act through social media, OSC advises federal employees not to refer to their official titles when engaged in political activity, not to engage while on duty, and not to suggest anyone make any political contributions. If you are a federal employee unsure of how the Hatch Act may affect you, consider speaking with a federal employment attorney to discuss your rights.