Last month's headlines proved that servicemembers are expected to behave on duty, off duty, in uniform and out, and even on social media.
First, there was the Facebook photo of an airman tongue-kissing a Prisoner of War-Missing in Action symbol, reported by the Army Times Feb. 14.
Then, there was the photo of Soldiers acting silly next to a casket, posted by a Wisconsin National Guardsman on an honors detail and the Intagram “selfie” of a Fort Carson, Colo., Soldier hiding in her car to avoid saluting the flag during retreat (reported by the Army Times Feb. 18 and Feb. 25, respectively).
Those servicemembers are facing investigations because their posts violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Soldiers need to be aware that the UCMJ applies 24/7, no matter if they're in or out of uniform, anytime they're on activated status,” said Chief of Military Justice and Special Assistant United States Attorney Maj. Tricia Birdsell, who works for the Fort Belvoir Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.
This includes their social media posts, comments, photos, links or tweets, she added, whether they intended them to be “private” or not.
“It doesn't matter if they feel that they're making (the post) in a private capacity on their Facebook account; (the post) is still out there for the public to see,” she said. “On social media outlets … once you put it out there, you can't get it back.”
According to Birdsell, several UCMJ punitive articles can be applied to social media use, including:
Article 88: Contempt toward officials (such as the President and members of Congress)
Article 89: Disrespect toward superior commissioned officer
Article 91: Insubordinate conduct toward a warrant officer, noncommissioned officer or petty officer
Article 133: Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman (which applies to men and women)
Article 134: General article
Article 134 can be used for noncommissioned officers or enlisted members who display unbecoming conduct, since
Article 133 refers to officers, Birdsell said.
“The only addition withArticle 134 is it must be 'prejudiced to good order and discipline' or 'service discrediting,'” she said.
Servicemembers should think before they post, comment, or link to any materials that could violate the UCMJ, or they could face consequences from a counseling to a court-martial, Birdsell said.
“If (servicemembers) are saying something extremely disrespectful about their company commander or their brigade commander and it's out there on social media, that could come back to them and they could be subject to the UCMJ for that,” she said. “The same thing goes with the warrant officers, noncommissioned officers, or even negative comments against the President or members of Congress.”
Government civilians are also subject to punishment for certain posts on social media, even when they're off duty, according to Eura Cherry, attorney at the Fort Belvoir Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.
“Employees should be aware that some of their off duty conduct may be deemed misconduct that is punishable by their employer,” Cherry said. “They should be mindful when utilizing social media and making posts which could be interpreted as defamatory, libelous, obscene, abusive, threatening, racially or ethnically hateful or otherwise offense or illegal.”
Federal employees should never post any classified information to social media, she added, or make any partisan political statements that would violate the Hatch Act.
“Civilian employees should err on the side of caution when using social media as they may inadvertently be subjecting themselves to future disciplinary action based on their conduct,” Cherry said.
For more information the social media policy for government civilians, visit the U.S. Office of Personnel Management site