There were only two issues on which Republicans and Democrats could agree during the House Judiciary Committee’s Constitution and Limited Government’s March 23 hearing on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) “chilling of parents fundamental rights” by branding them “domestic terrorists” in 2021.
All four of the witnesses providing testimony for the hearing agreed when asked by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) that parents “have the right to see what their children” are being taught in public schools. The other point of agreement was that to date nobody has been arrested as a result of DOJ’s actions.
But even on the latter issue, partisan members of the panel disagreed vehemently about what the lack of arrests signified. Republicans, led by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), cited the March 21 interim staff report of the judiciary committee’s Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.
That report concluded that there were no arrests because “after surveying local law enforcement, U.S. Attorney’s offices around the country reported back to Main Justice that there was no legitimate law-enforcement basis for the Attorney General’s directive to use federal law-enforcement and counterterrorism resources to investigate school board-related threats.”
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the judiciary committee, cited the lack of any arrests as evidence to support his contention that Republicans investigating the response of DOJ and the FBI to the school board protests as “weaponization of government” were simply imagining a non-existent conspiracy.
“The Republican majority unfortunately is using this first hearing of the subcommittee to advance the spurious assertion that the Biden administration and the FBI are somehow chilling parents’ free-speech rights. There is scant evidence to back up the bogus claim of a wide-ranging federal government conspiracy to quell opposition to COVID-19 policies or so-called ‘Woke’ indoctrination by targeting parents who protested at school boards,” Nadler declared.
Three of the four witnesses for the hearing, however, left little doubt that they found the evidence described in the interim staff report strongly corroborated their own experiences in the field.
Nicole Neily, President of Parents Defending Education, said she began hearing from worried moms and dads soon after it was made public that DOJ had issued a memorandum directing the FBI to create a “domestic terrorist” file in which to capture evidence from the parental protests. That memorandum was made public by Jordan after it was provided to him by a whistleblower in the government.
“Unsurprisingly, parents were frightened by this escalation; in the days following the release of the Attorney General’s memo, my colleagues and I fielded dozens of requests from concerned parents who worried whether they should continue their advocacy work or simply stay home, fearing a knock at the door from federal law enforcement,” Neily told the subcommittee.
Neily said parents across the country began protesting at school board meetings because “they are upset about lessons on race and gender that teach our children to view each other through the lens of identity—and to treat each other accordingly; about the elimination of gifted and talented programs in the name of equity; about districts spending finite budget dollars to bring in diversity consultants that sow division, rather than addressing learning loss; about schools facilitating their children’s gender transitions behind their backs; and they are mad that when they try and raise these concerns with their schools, they are mocked by the media and shut down by their elected officials, who have begun to take drastic steps to restrict public comments.”
Tyson Langhofer, Senior Counsel and Director of the Center for Academic Freedom at the Alliance Defending Freedom, focused on recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts affirming freedom of speech for all citizens, including parents of public school children.
“The government must remain ‘viewpoint neutral’ toward speech, no matter the forum in which the speech occurs. Just as much as the government cannot directly prohibit protected speech, it also cannot take any action that has a concrete ‘deterrent, or chilling’ effect’ on speech,” Langhofer explained.
“The Supreme Court has rejected, for example, a wide array of governmental attempts to root out subversive ideologies by direct or indirect retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech or association. The Constitution also protects against efforts to suppress or intimidate individuals or groups from engaging in constitutionally protected speech,” he said.
The day’s most emotional testimony was delivered by Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of the parents group Moms for Liberty. Noting that her organization has more than 115,000 members, Justice said “we attended school board meetings, often facing unjust treatment. Parents were expelled, their mics were cut off, and many were prevented from speaking. Americans peacefully exercising their constitutional rights were labeled as enemies of the state.”
But Justice vowed that “we are moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and concerned citizens. We are not ‘domestic terrorists.’ We will not be silenced to protect a failing system. They betrayed the trust of the American people. There must be accountability.”
Justice implored the subcommittee “to hold accountable those that violated their oath to the Constitution, who trampled on our right to be heard, and who sought to use their position of power to subvert “we the parents.”
The fourth witness, Nadine Farid Johnson, the Managing Director of Washington and Free Expression Programs for PEN America, suggested the subcommittee’s hearing was part of a nationwide anti-free speech effort by opponents of Critical Race Theory and programs based on assumptions that America lacks sufficient diversity, equity, and inclusion in its civil, social, political and economic institutions.
“Today, we are in the midst of the broadest attack on First Amendment rights in schools and universities this country has seen in generations. From book bans to curriculum restrictions, state and local officials across the country are engaging in government-mandated censorship,” Johnson said.
“They are undermining students’ right to receive information, and impairing their freedom to learn. They are putting obstacle after obstacle in front of teachers and librarians to make it difficult for them to carry out their duties as educators,” she said.
All eight of the Republican members of the subcommittee were present at the beginning of the hearing and then throughout most of the testimony and cr0ss-examination. Two of the six Democrats on the panel—Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) were not present.
Despite the lack of arrests, the panel’s Ranking Member, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), claimed that the DOJ actions were prompted by a “terrifying trend of threats” against public school board members, teachers and administrators.
She condemned the Republican majority for embarking on a “march toward censorship” with the hearing. “There is a huge difference between addressing speech on the basis of its content and speech that is hateful and tending to inspire violence,” she said.
Another Democrat on the panel, Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, got into a bitter exchange with Neily and Justice when he demanded to know if the former’s group receives financial support from the Koch Brothers and claiming the latter “is a dark-money group.” Both witnesses angrily denied Johnson’s claims.