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8/26/2010
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Federal Workers Limited In Social Media Activities

Facebook, Twitter and other social media activities of federal employees are restricted in how they express political views by guidelines from the Office of Special Counsel.

Federal employees have limitations on how they can express political views in blogs and while using social media like Facebook and Twitter, according to new guidelines from the Office of Special Counsel. The guidelines, published last month, answered frequently asked questions for how federal employees can mix their personal politics in an online milieu while still balancing responsibilities as government workers.

The questions are based on how the 71-year-old Hatch Act pertains to social media. The Hatch Act governs the political activities of federal employees and, like many laws written before the existence of the Internet, has had to be adapted to consider online activities. The guidelines mainly handle matters concerning the expression of political-party affiliations and partisan support for particular candidates as expressed in an online, public medium, and doing so during hours of employment.

For instance, federal employees are allowed to use blogs and social networks to express support for candidates for office when they are not at work, but they can't engage in online activity supporting a candidate while on duty or at a federal workplace. Similarly, while they can become a "fan" or "like" a certain candidate or political figure on Facebook, they are not allowed to do so during hours they are at work, nor can they do anything to support that candidate or political figure during that time, according to the guidelines.

The guidelines not only cover what federal employees may do on a personal social-media account or blog, but also set limits for how they can express themselves on other people's blogs or social networks. More or less, the same limitations apply when a federal employee is acting on another person's Facebook page or blog; they are not permitted to show support for a political figure during their hours of employment or while using a federal network. However, if a friend posts a link to donate to a political party, partisan candidate or party-affiliated group on someone's Facebook page, the employee whose page it is on is not at fault, as he or she cannot control the actions of others, according to the guidelines. Still the person whose page it is posted on is not permitted to post any comments that would encourage others to donate or support the candidate, party or group, the OSC said.

As federal agencies increasingly use social networks as part of citizen-engagement activities and allow employees access to social media at work, they've had to lay some ground rules for how they are used, especially when it comes to politics. Agencies, too, refrain from using public Facebook pages for political purposes; they are mainly used as a way to share news and information with citizens.

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