Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Oct. 27 that it was appropriate for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to send a memo to school boards despite a National School Boards Association (NSBA) decision to withdraw its letter comparing parent protesters to domestic terrorists.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Garland attempted to distance the DOJ’s memo from the NSBA letter.
“All it asks is for federal law enforcement to consult with, meet with local law enforcement to assess the circumstances, strategize about what may or may not be necessary to provide federal assistance, if it is necessary,” Garland said, in response to questioning from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
The memo, he said, “alters some of the language in the letter that we did not rely on and is not contained in my own memorandum. The only thing the Justice Department is concerned about is violence and threats of violence.”
After the NSBA letter and DOJ’s memo were issued, Republicans in Congress said the Biden administration was trying to quash parental dissent against the teaching of controversial subjects, including the quasi-Marxist critical race theory.
Republicans have said the DOJ should withdraw the memo since the NSBA retracted and apologized for its letter last week. The original letter referred to protests against school board members and likened such actions to domestic terrorism, asking the DOJ to use the Patriot Act.
“I think all of us have seen these reports of violence and threats of violence—that is what the Justice Department is concerned about,” Garland said on Oct. 27. “That’s the reason that we responded as quickly as we did when we got a letter indicating that there was violence and threats of violence with respect to school officials and school staff.”
Real and concrete threats of violence against school officials “are not protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “We are not investigating peaceful protests or parent involvement in school board meetings.”
The follow-up apology letter issued by the NSBA “does not change” its concern about the threat of violence, Garland said, telling Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that the DOJ directive merely addresses whether any federal laws were being broken.
Without providing any concrete examples or data, the attorney general’s memo issued earlier in October said there has been a “disturbing spike” in threats of violence, harassment, and intimidation against teachers, school board members, and other educators. In a separate statement, the DOJ also announced the creation of a task force that would deal with such threats, which includes the agency’s National Security Division.
In response to Garland’s testimony on Oct. 27, Parents Defending Education head Nicole Neily said in a statement that a “number of people across the country” were terrified by the DOJ memo. The memo also suppressed parents from attending meetings and voicing their concerns “because they feared a knock at the door by the FBI,” Neily said.
Garland confirmed during an Oct. 21 House Judiciary Hearing that the basis for the claim of a “disturbing spike” in threats was based on the NSBA letter—not on law enforcement intelligence or academic studies.
But the NBSA has since distanced itself from its initial letter.
“On behalf of the NSBA, we regret and apologize for the letter,” the group’s Oct. 22 letter said. “To be clear, the safety of school board members, other public school officials and educators, and students is our top priority, and there remains important work to be done on this issue.
“However, there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter. We should have had a better process in place to allow for some consultation on a communication of this significance.”