Can Military Members Protest?

Updated: June 5, 2020
In this Article

    Can those who are enlisted or officers in the United States military participate in protests or political activity? What rules inform and guide service members in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Space Force, and Marine Corps? What about members of the National Guard and the Army Reserve or Air Force Reserve?

    The Difference Between Political Activity And Political Protest

    In all instances, military rules of conduct make a clear difference between attending or participating in a protest and being politically active as an American citizen. There are clear rules for both, and all military members are expected to abide by them.

    We will explore both, but it is crucial to understand at the beginning of the conversation that protests are not necessarily viewed the same as political activity even if some of the rules seem exactly the same for both. Protests have a higher potential to veer off into illegal activity, and there is a clear line in the sand for those in uniform. They are expected to maintain good order and discipline and make correct choices accordingly in such cases.

    What Military Members May Not Do With Respect To Politics And Protest

    Military members must not, first and foremost, participate in any illegal activity that may arise from a protest or political event. They are forbidden from participating in fundraising for political activities (with exceptions for making personal donations).

    Military members are permitted to display political bumper stickers, but they may not use “official authority or influence to interfere with an election, affect the course or outcome of an election, solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, or require or solicit political contributions from others.”

    Military members are also restricted from publishing “partisan political articles, letters, or endorsements signed or written by the member that solicits votes for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.” It is important to note that this does NOT apply to “letters to the editor” or similar situations.

    Troops may not “serve in any official capacity with or be listed as a sponsor of a partisan political club” or speak at any partisan political gathering, “including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.” Service members cannot appear in the media “as an advocate for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.”

    This is not to imply that military members can’t participate in politics. The DOD has a longstanding policy of encouraging members to carry out the obligations of citizenship and the DOD encourages its military members to register to vote and vote as they choose.

    The Key To Understanding The Rules About Protests And Political Activity

    In all cases where a regulation or law affects service members in relation to protesting OR political activity, there is a general rule of thumb you can use that helps establish a safe personal boundary for such involvement.

    Most, if not all the rules pertaining to these questions address the issue of ATTENDING an event, rally or protest, etc., and PARTICIPATING in one. If you attend a protest but do not participate, you are safe. However, if you attend in uniform, you are in violation or potential violation of the rules even if you are a spectator only.

    The same is true for political events, movements, causes, rallies, etc. You may attend (voting is considered attendance) but not participate. You must never be seen, or be perceived, to act as one endorsing an event, candidate, etc. as a member of the Armed Forces or as a DoD civilian. That is one reason for the prohibition of attendance in uniform.

    Legal Authority For Issuing Guidelines On Political Activity And Protest

    There are multiple regulatory publications that inform military members and federal employees on their rights and responsibilities for political activity and protest.They include:

    • DOD Directive 1344.10 (applies to members of the armed forces, whether they serve on active duty, as members of the reserve components not on active duty, as National Guard members in a non-federal status and military retirees.)
    • The Hatch Act (applies to federal civilian employees and employees also are subject to widely published DOD guidance that discusses participation in political campaigns and elections)
    • The Uniform Code of Military Justice
    • Command-level guidance for troops assigned to a squadron, unit, wing, major command, etc.

    Some rules, such as those found in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, address specific issues that can lead to a breakdown of good morale and discipline within the ranks. Article 88 of the UCMJ specifically prohibits commissioned officers from disrespecting public officials as follows:

    “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”

    Other guidance is less specific, and written to address a broader set of issues. For example, the Hatch Act was written as a guide for federal employees that restricts certain activities on and off-duty.

    Federal employees may not, for example, “seek public office in partisan elections, use their official title or authority when engaging in political activity, solicit or receive contributions for partisan political candidates or groups, and engage in political activity while on duty,” according to government literature.

    Under the Hatch Act, some federal employees are considered “more restricted” under these laws than others. Who is “more restricted”? Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officers, Administrative Law Judges, and Career Senior Executive Service employees.

    Other federal employees are “less restricted” but still subject to certain constraints. Federal employees generally may not do any of the following:

    • Use official authority to interfere with an election or while engaged in political activity.
    • Invite subordinates to political events or otherwise suggest that they engage in political activity.
    • Solicit or discourage the political activity of any person with business before the agency.
    • Solicit, accept, or receive political contributions in many cases.
    • Engage in political activity while on duty, in the workplace, wearing a uniform or official insignia, or in a government vehicle.

    Political Activity

    The first thing to understand about all DoD guidance in this area is that federal employees, military members, and their families are encouraged to participate in the political process.

    This can include voting, donating, and typical activities that are by their nature publicly non-partisan. The act of voting, for example, is a non-partisan act no matter who you support. The CHOICES you make in voting are political, but the ACT of voting is non-partisan. The fact that you donated funds to support a political cause is not in itself viewed as a partisan act. You can hold a non-partisan office as a military member such as being on a local school board, but such activities may not interfere with your military duties in any way.

    As the Hatch Act guidelines listed above point out, service members and federal employees may not use their position to influence subordinates in any way, may not solicit donations or other funds from subordinates, and cannot participate in the political process in uniform, especially in a partisan way.

    These rules are not just codified in this context; in general superiors are forbidden from soliciting from subordinates. They are also restricted from making official statements about political issues, participating in public events while in uniform in any context where that may be construed as an official endorsement of a party, organization, movement, or cause, etc.

    This is NOT a comprehensive list of restrictions, but it gives a very good idea of the expectations for those who serve. At the end of the day the “attend but do not participate” rule of thumb is the safest basic instruction to follow if you are unsure of your responsibilities while serving in uniform.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team