When Is a Tweet an Ethics Violation? | A Question of Ethics
Q. As a staffer for a Member of the House, one of my responsibilities is to run his official Twitter and Facebook accounts, and I have a question about permissible uses of those accounts. The Member occasionally likes to help political allies by making public endorsements during their campaigns. I figure it is okay to announce these via Twitter as I have seen other Members do it, but another staffer in our office said the rules might not allow it. It’s not really against the rules to tweet endorsements of other candidates, is it? A. Are there restrictions on members’ use of Twitter? You bet there are.
The restrictions derive from a fundamental principle about the permissible uses of federal funds: “Appropriations shall be applied only to the objects for which the appropriations were made.” Put another way, when Congress allocates federal funds for a particular purpose, the funds may be used only for such purpose.
This restriction extends to resources purchased with official funds. The House Committee on Ethics has said “official resources of the House must, as a general rule, be used for the performance of official business of the House,” and not campaign or political purposes. Moreover, the Ethics Committee requires all official resources be used in accordance with the Members’ Handbook, published by the Committee on House Administration.
The rapid rise of social media in recent years has raised new questions about how to apply these rules, many of which were created before social media’s advent. According to a Congressional Research Service report, as of January 2012, more than three quarters of members had official Twitter accounts. Two and a half years later, that figure may be approaching 100 percent.
While the House Ethics Manual does not specifically address the permissible content of members’ official media accounts, the Members’ Handbook does. It allows members to establish “social media accounts,” which the handbook defines as “profiles, pages, channels or any similar presence on third-party sites that allow individuals or organizations to offer information about themselves to the public.” However, and this is important, “Member-controlled content on Social Media Accounts is subject to the same requirements as content on Member websites.”
Specifically, content of websites, and therefore social media accounts, must “be in compliance with Federal law and House Rules and Regulations applicable to official communications and germane to the conduct of the Member’s official and representational duties.” Content must not include “personal … or campaign information” nor “grassroots lobbying or solicit support for a Member’s position.”
Although not specifically addressing social media accounts, the House Ethics Manual states that “the general prohibition against campaign or political use of official resources applies not only to any Member campaign for re-election, but rather to any campaign or political undertaking.”
Taken together, the Ethics Committee guidance and the Member’s Handbook suggest that endorsing campaigns via official social media accounts, such as Twitter, could indeed draw the attention of the Ethics Committee. While the committee has never admonished any member for sending a campaign tweet from an official House Twitter account, you should not interpret this as a license to use official Twitter accounts for non-official purposes. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are still relatively new, and the committee has previously taken action against misuses of older forms of communication. In March 1996, the committee advised a member that he had violated rules governing the use of official resources by using a House fax machine to send a mass communication on House letterhead criticizing a potential campaign opponent.
The safer course, then, is to do what many members are already doing: Use official social media accounts for permissible official purposes, and establish other social media accounts — e.g., personal or campaign accounts — for other purposes.
Notably, the Members’ Handbook’s restrictions on the content of social media accounts do not govern these unofficial accounts. Of course, if you do go that route, it is important to remember to distinguish between official and unofficial accounts.
Specifically, the handbook states that “Members should ensure their social media URLs and account names reflect their position.” Conversely, members’ personal and campaign accounts should not give the impression that they are the members’ official account.
As you can see, in managing your members’ social media accounts, you’ve got your hands full.
C. Simon Davidson is an attorney with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to email@example.com. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.