Wearing Uniforms in Political Advertisements

This fall’s election is only a couple of months away, and candidates for office or proponents/opponents of ballot measures may be wondering if their advertisements may make use of photographs showing police officers, deputy sheriffs, firefighters, or other uniformed employees dressed in their agency uniforms. State law, specifically RCW 42.17A.555, prohibits the use of public facilities for the support or opposition of candidates or ballot propositions; does this prohibition include the use of official uniforms?

The state Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces state political campaign regulations, recently issued revised election campaign guidelines that, among other things, specifically address the use of uniforms in political campaigns. (The revisions also provide guidance relating generally to the use of government facilities in campaigns; it is an excellent source of information.) Here is a summary of some of the guidelines that apply to the use of uniforms in campaigns:

1. Employees may use uniforms they own during non-work hours to assist a campaign; they may not use agency-purchased, agency-owned, or agency-replaced uniforms to assist a campaign.
2. “Former” uniforms, those that are no longer used by an agency, may be used in a campaign, provided that they have exceeded their life expectancy or have been “retired,” they have been sold to an employee or other person following agency procedures, and there is no expectation the uniform will be returned to or used by the agency in the future. The fact that the uniform is no longer used should be documented.
3. Photos and videos showing uniformed employees may be used in a campaign if they were made in the ordinary course of business, were not staged for campaign purposes, and are made available to a campaign under the same terms as they would be made available to the public. It is suggested that any advertisement using a photo or video that includes a uniformed employee make it clear through a disclaimer that the public agency is not supporting or endorsing a candidate or ballot measure.
4. Uniforms that are not property of the agency, that have been rented or purchased with non-public funds, may be used in a campaign.

The guidelines for uniforms also apply to parts of uniforms, such as shirts and pants, and to related items, such as badges, firearms, handcuffs, logos, emblems, radios, etc.

Questions regarding the guidelines can be posed to the Public Disclosure Commission, at (360)753-1111.

About Paul Sullivan

Paul has worked with local governments since 1974 and has authored MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operation. He also provides training on the Open Public Meetings Act.
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