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Utah Sen. Mike Lee to the Department of Justice: Leave parents alone

Angry parents speaking to school boards about politically charged topics like mask mandates, critical race theory are exercising free speech, GOP senators say

People take part a rally in support of Utah Board of Education member Natalie Cline in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.
People take part a rally in support of Utah Board of Education member Natalie Cline in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Utah Sen. Mike Lee has a message for the Department of Justice: Leave parents alone.

Lee is among a dozen Republican senators who are demanding 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.

In a letter Thursday to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the senators say they are concerned about the appearance of the DOJ “policing” the speech of citizens and concerned parents.

“We urge you to make very clear to the American public that the Department of Justice will not interfere with the rights of parents to come before school boards and speak with educators about their concerns, whether regarding coronavirus-related measures, the teaching of critical race theory in schools, sexually explicit books in schools, or any other topic,” the senators wrote.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, signed onto a letter to Garland from House Republicans expressing the same sentiment.

“Parents are irreplaceable advocates for their children, and recent attempts to stifle their genuine concerns are unproductive and harmful to students,” Owens tweeted.

On Monday, 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, the Washington Post reported.

In a memorandum to FBI Director Christopher Wray and federal prosecutors, Garland wrote that the DOJ will hold strategy sessions with law enforcement in the next 30 days and is expected to announce measures in response to “the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel” in the nation’s public schools.

“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.”

The memo comes after the National School Boards Association last month sent a letter to President Joe 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.

“An angry parent is not a domestic terrorist,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said in a tweet.

Stewart also signed the House Republicans letter to Garland.

“President Biden is using the Justice Department as a political weapon,” he said, adding it’s the president’s most recent attempt to silence opposition to his agenda.

“The attorney general is clearly attempting to restrict speech that is protected by the First Amendment. He has no right to silence the legitimate concerns of parents. And he has no right to brand these justly concerned parents as domestic terrorists,” Stewart said.

Angry parents are not necessarily threatening parents, and those discussions are clearly protected under the First Amendment, according to the GOP senators.

“To be clear, violence and true threats of violence are not protected speech and have no place in the public discourse of a democracy,” the senators wrote. “However, the FBI should not be involved in quashing and criminalizing discourse that is well beneath violent acts. … It is not appropriate to use the awesome powers of the federal government — including the PATRIOT Act, a statute designed to thwart international terrorism — to quash those who question local school boards.”

Republicans at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday accused the DOJ of heavy-handed tactics to try to intimidate parents speaking at school board meetings about mask mandates or academic curriculums.

“Does it raise civil rights concerns when the government attempts to intimidate citizens who are exercising their First Amendment freedom of speech?” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., asked assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke during a hearing on a voting rights bill.

“The First Amendment is important, and we also do not want a society with intimidation,” Clarke said.

When pressed further about the Garland memo, Clarke said, “This is not a matter that the civil rights division handled. I am aware of the memorandum issued by the attorney general, which speaks to threats and intimidation that some school officials have experienced in our country. And that’s not activity protected by the First Amendment.”

“And so you’re saying a parent going to a school board and expressing their dismay with CRT or with the mask mandate is not protected speech?” Blackburn replied. “Is that what you’re saying?”

Lee, a Senate Judiciary Committee member, attended the hearing but confined his questions to the voting rights bill.