Attorney General Merrick Garland declined to pull back a memo directing the FBI to help local police address reported harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against educators and school board members under questioning from Sen. Mike Lee on Wednesday.
The Utah Republican pointed out that the National School Boards Association has apologized for a letter to President Joe Biden last month saying some of the incidents could be classified as “domestic terrorism.” Garland based his directive to the FBI and federal prosecutors nationwide, in part, on the association’s letter.
“Will you rescind your letter?” Lee asked Garland during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
The attorney general didn’t directly answer the question but said the impetus for his memo was the school board association’s letter and news reports of “this kind of activity.” Since his Oct. 4 memo, Garland said, there have been more reports and statements by school board members about threats to kill them.
Lee said he and his staff went through every news source mentioned in the school board association’s letter.
“There was no explicit death threat and I reiterate my concern that not every outburst or expression of concern by neighbors among neighbors at a local school board meeting warrants a federal investigation. It certainly doesn’t warrant the involvement of 94 U.S. attorneys in a way that threatens, intimidates and intends to chill First Amendment activity,” he said.
The attorney general’s memo came after the National School Boards Association sent a letter to Biden asking for help from federal law enforcement, referencing the Patriot Act, a law used to deter and punish terrorist acts in the U.S. and abroad.
The organization highlighted situations involving angry parents often frustrated by COVID-19 mask mandates for children and the possibility of teaching critical race theory in schools.
Last week, the association apologized to its members for the letter.
“There was no justification for some of the language use included in the letter. We should have had a better process in place to allow for consultation on a communication of this significance,” the group said, noting the safety of its members and schools is its top priority.
The association did not specify what language in the letter was inappropriate. Nor did it explicitly rescind its request for federal backup in dealing with threats and violence, according to Education Week.
Lee was among a dozen Republican senators who earlier demanded the DOJ not threaten the use of federal law enforcement against parents who raise highly charged issues such as mask mandates and critical race theory in local school board meetings.
Garland directed the FBI to work with local leaders nationwide to help address what he called a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against educators and school board members over highly politicized issues relating to the coronavirus and school curriculums.
“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views,” Garland wrote. “Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values. Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”
In the Senate hearing, Lee said 17 attorneys general, including Utah Republican Sean Reyes, have reported “no unusual flood” of threats of violence against school board members, “nothing that they can’t handle at the state and local level.”
Garland said the approach in his letter is to meet with local law enforcement, evaluate situations, strategize and open lines of communication.
“I’m hopeful that many areas of local law enforcement will be well able to handle this on their own. But this is what the Justice Department does every day, consult with local and state partners and see whether assistance is necessary,” he said.
Lee said federal involvement chills free speech.
“I question seriously the role of the federal government in protecting people at local school board meetings from their neighbors,” he said. “In hindsight, would you agree that a natural consequence of your memo could be chilling free speech, protected speech by parents protesting local school board policies?”
Garland said that is not the purpose of his directive.
“Senator, the memo is aimed only at violence and threats of violence,” he said. “It states on its face that vigorous debate is protected. That is what this is about, and that is all this is about.”