What Are the Free Speech Rules for Military Spouses?

a large crowd gathered near the reflecting pool in DC
(Jovi Prevot/DVIDS)

You may have seen something circulating on social media about how and where service members are allowed to express their opinions on current political events.

But does that extend to military spouses as well?

While military members are subject to certain rules about what they can say and do while in uniform, those restrictions do not extend to military spouses.

That's right: There are no official rules. Any rumors about rules for spouses governing political speech or attendance at political or issue-related marches or rallies are not true.

Can Your Service Member Get in Trouble for Your Political Acts?

Participating in any political activity -- including a Black Lives Matter demonstration, a pride parade, a gun rights rally, a pro-life protest or a political event in support of a candidate -- is your constitutional right as a citizen. And in many situations, even the active-duty service member can participate out of uniform.

But despite the actual policies -- or lack thereof -- regarding freedom of speech for military spouses, we know that it's not quite that simple in practice. Someone out there is going to throw around a statement like "control your wife." His or her chain of command could make veiled threats about how your actions could impact promotions or reassignments or even take action against the service member.

Sarah Streyder, who directs the Secure Families Initiative, a nonprofit that encourages military spouses as advocates and organizers on matters of foreign policy, said that a pair of Defense Department directives --1334.10, which governs political speech for service members, and 1325.06, which governs protest and dissent activities -- outline what service members can do; they do not apply to spouses. Streyder notes that there are additional guidelines and restrictions for service members stationed overseas.

She said one example, out of a handful, of where a spouse can accidentally get their service member in trouble is easily overlooked.

"When you use a shared email or social media account to solicit funds for political campaigns," it can easily be perceived that your service member was the one who posted it, she said.

Political Speech for Military Spouses Who Are Federal Employees

If you're a federal employee, you still have the right to political activity, but there are more regulations. (This may be true for any civilian company you work for, so do some research.) Federal employees, including the Postal Service, part-time and furloughed workers and those on leave without pay, are covered by the Hatch Act.

The list of what you can and cannot do, according to the Hatch Act, is based on the type of employee you are and who you work for. For example, a military spouse working for the Central Intelligence Agency (known as a "further restricted employee") is going to have different restrictions than most federal executive branch employees.

Go to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel's website to read up on what is permissible and then act accordingly.

For the Military Spouse Who Is a Unit Volunteer

Good news! You can still be politically active, you just can't do it while volunteering for the unit or use your volunteer position in any way. That means don't use the soldier and family readiness group (SFRG) email to tell people about your campaign, to encourage donations for a political party or for anything non-SFRG related.

In short, anything you do politically needs to be done by your voice alone -- not you the SFRG leader, you the Spouses' Club historian or you the PTO volunteer. That means you can use your own social media and personal email to make any political speech you desire.

What to Do If Your Service Member Is Punished for Your Free Speech

If your service member's career is impacted for political activity you have taken, you may need to seek legal counsel to appeal the decision.

And if there are unofficial repercussions, like a snide comment toward you or your spouse, you may find comfort and understanding in a group like the Secure Families Initiative (SFI).

In addition to providing a community for spouses who are interested and involved in politics, SFI offers educational opportunities via free webinars.

Military spouses should feel encouraged to participate politically, whether at the local level or by campaigning for and protesting national issues. Your voice as a citizen is valuable. Make it heard.

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--Rebecca Alwine can be reached at rebecca.alwine@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebecca_alwine.

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