“Attorney General Garland is weaponizing the DOJ by using the FBI to pursue concerned parents and silence them through intimidation. Florida will defend the free speech rights of its citizens and will not allow federal agents to squelch dissent.”

— Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a tweet, Oct. 5.

“Frankly, I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like it in American history. … Are you aware of any time in American history when an attorney general has directed the FBI to begin to intervene in school board meetings — local school board meetings?”

— Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., in a Senate hearing, Oct. 5.

“Merrick Garland says he’s going to use the Justice Department to spy on parents at school board meetings.”

— Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, in an interview on Fox News, Oct. 13.

“Who would have ever thought that you would have an American president make a decision to leave Americans behind in Afghanistan now directing the DOJ to try to silence parents and actually separate parents from what their children can do inside schools?”

— House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in an interview on Fox News, Oct. 10

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“Now the FBI is trying to silence parents. That’s wrong.”

— Glenn Youngkin, Republican nominee for Virginia governor, in a campaign ad, Oct. 13

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Because of a “disturbing spike” in threats directed at public school officials, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum this month calling on the FBI and federal prosecutors to meet with local law enforcement agencies and set up “dedicated lines of communication.”

Republicans are sounding the alarm over Garland’s one-page memo, claiming in interviews, congressional hearings, campaign ads and social media that the Justice Department is cracking down on parents simply for dissenting at their local school board meetings.

These meetings, where the nation’s almost 14,000 public school districts debate and set their policies, can become heated over questions such as how to teach race in the classroom and whether coronavirus vaccinations and tests or face masks should be required, among other issues. Some school board members have grown concerned for their safety as their forums have turned more vitriolic, and one recently reported a death threat and resigned.

The bottom line is Republicans are reading much more into Garland’s memo than it says. The memo focuses strictly on “violence, threats of violence, and other forms of intimidation and harassment” — all of which are crimes — not on parents raising questions or complaints.

The Oct. 4 memo, addressed to FBI Director Christopher Wray and federal prosecutors, reads in part:

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“In recent months, there has been a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our 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.

“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values. …

“The Department takes these incidents seriously and is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate. …

“Coordination and partnership with local law enforcement is critical to implementing these measures for the benefit of our nation’s nearly 14,000 public school districts. To this end, I am directing the Federal Bureau of Investigation, working with each United States Attorney, to convene meetings with federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial leaders in each federal judicial district within 30 days of the issuance of this memorandum. These meetings will facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff, and will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response. …”

Garland’s memo added, “In the coming days, the Department will announce a series of measures designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel.”

In an accompanying news release, the Justice Department said, “Those efforts are expected to include the creation of a task force, consisting of representatives from the department’s Criminal Division, National Security Division, Civil Rights Division, the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, the FBI, the Community Relations Service and the Office of Justice Programs, to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes, and ways to assist state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes.”

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And: “The Justice Department will also create specialized training and guidance for local school boards and school administrators. This training will help school board members and other potential victims understand the type of behavior that constitutes threats, how to report threatening conduct to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, and how to capture and preserve evidence of threatening conduct to aid in the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.”

Put it all together, and Garland is calling for 1) strategy meetings between federal and local law enforcement, 2) a task force, 3) dedicated lines of communication for addressing threats, and 4) training and guidance for school officials. The news release says the Justice Department will study “how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes, and ways to assist state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes.” (Most violent crimes are investigated and prosecuted by state and local law enforcement agencies, not federal authorities.)

Some of the Republican officials we asked for comment pointed to a letter from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) that asked President Joe Biden for federal resources to help monitor emerging threats. The letter was dated Sept. 29, days before the attorney general’s memo was released, and made various requests of federal agencies including the Justice Department.

“While local and state law enforcement agencies are working with public school officials in several communities to prevent further disruptions to educational services and school district operations, law enforcement officials in some jurisdictions need assistance — including help with monitoring the threat levels,” NSBA officials wrote to Biden.

“School board meetings have been disrupted in California, Florida, Georgia, and other states because of local directives for mask coverings to protect students and educators from COVID-19,” the group’s letter says. “An individual was arrested in Illinois for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct during a school board meeting. During two separate school board meetings in Michigan, an individual yelled a Nazi salute in protest to masking requirements, and another individual prompted the board to call a recess because of opposition to critical race theory.”

As noted in the letter, a school board member in Ohio received hate mail that said: “We are coming after you and all the members on the … BOE [Board of Education] … You are forcing them to wear mask — for no reason in this world other than control. And for that you will pay dearly.” That correspondence is being investigated by police.

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Days after the NSBA letter was sent, a school board chairman in North Carolina resigned and disclosed that his life had been threatened, WCCB Charlotte reported.

The NSBA letter said some “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials … could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

“Most disturbingly, on page 4, the NSBA letter references Scott Smith — the Loudoun County, Virginia, parent who was arrested for protesting at a school board meeting in June — implying that his behavior was ‘extremist’ and warranting action from federal law enforcement,” said Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis. “Smith’s supposed crime? He attempted to protest a Loudoun school’s coverup of his 14-year-old daughter’s sexual assault by a transgender classmate in her school bathroom.”

According to the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department, in July, more than a month after an alleged assault at Stone Bridge High School on May 28, “a 14-year-old male was arrested in the case with two counts of forcible sodomy.” The same teen reportedly was charged with sexually assaulting another alleged female victim at a different high school last week.

Smith, the father of the first alleged victim, was found guilty of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after an altercation at his local school board meeting in June, which Smith says he attended to protest how his daughter’s case was handled. “Deputies dragged him to the ground, then outside, where he continued struggling and arguing with them, threatening to kick their teeth out,” Loudoun Now reported.

“In citing Mr. Smith’s case as an example of behavior that justifies a federal crackdown, the NSBA letter asked the Biden administration to deploy federal law enforcement to silence and intimidate parents who have grave concerns that deserve to be heard,” Pushaw said. “The Loudoun County School Board is not the victim in this case.”

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The NSBA, a nonprofit, has no relationship to the Justice Department. Garland’s memo makes no mention of the group, its letter to Biden or the examples it included.

Asked about DeSantis’ vow that “Florida will defend the free speech rights of its citizens and will not allow federal agents to squelch dissent,” Pushaw said: “At this time, it is too soon to speculate about legal actions, because the DOJ has not yet taken any legal action to infringe upon Floridians’ rights following this memo. As you know, the DOJ memo directs the FBI to work with U.S. attorneys and ‘convene meeting’ in each federal judicial district … To be clear, Governor DeSantis is committed to protecting Floridians’ rights and will take legal action if future developments warrant that.”

A spokesman for Jordan, Russell Dye, said in an email that the only way the Justice Department could use “its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate,” as the memo says, was by monitoring parents at school board meetings, as the congressman said.

“The only reasonable explanation is to have the FBI/DOJ watch what parents say at meetings and intimidate them into silence,” Dye said. “Pretty easy to understand.”

(The FBI simply could get tips from local officials, as Garland’s memo envisions.)

Mark Bednar, a spokesman for McCarthy, said existing laws already establish criminal penalties for violence or threats as outlined in the memo. Bednar said the Justice Department’s move was heavy-handed and could have a chilling effect on parents who might otherwise speak up about their children’s education.

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“Localized threats of violence are appropriately handled by local law enforcement,” Bednar said. “As such, the real question is why the Biden administration used the power of the federal government to publicly threaten ‘a series of measures’ aimed at addressing local school board meetings … The unnecessary, ominous rhetoric from the DOJ’s memo could have a chilling effect on parents’ First Amendment engagement with their local schools.”

Fair, but McCarthy’s comment on Fox News was that Biden was “directing the DOJ to try to silence parents and actually separate parents from what their children can do inside schools.” There’s no indication Biden himself is directing this, or that the Justice Department will be targeting legitimate speech (free of violence or threats) at these forums.

Garland spokesman Anthony Coley referred us to this line in the Justice Department memo: “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.”

Coley also pointed to recent Senate testimony by Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco, the second-highest-ranking official at the department, and Assistant Attorney General Kristen M. Clarke, the head of the Civil Rights Division.

“Frankly, I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like it in American history. … Are you aware of any time in American history when an attorney general has directed the FBI to begin to intervene in school board meetings — local school board meetings?” Hawley asked Monaco at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Oct. 5.

“The memorandum is quite clear. It’s one page,” Monaco said. “And it asks the U.S. attorney community and the FBI special agents-in-charge to convene state and local law enforcement partners to ensure that there’s an open line of communication to address threats, to address violence — and that’s the appropriate role of the Department of Justice, to make sure that we are addressing criminal conduct and violence.” (A spokesman for Hawley did not respond to our questions on the record.)

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When the same Senate committee met the next day for a different hearing, Clarke said in response to questions from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that parents “have the right to express their view, to challenge the school board, to ask for reforms.”

“The attorney general’s memo deals with threats against public servants and says the threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Clarke said.

Glenn Youngkin, a Republican running for Virginia governor, talks with an attendee at a campaign event in Winchester, Va., on Oct. 6, 2021. Virginia Republicans in a tight governor’s race have been staging “Parents Matter” rallies. (Jason Andrew / The New York Times)

Youngkin, the Republican running for Virginia governor, received a “Pants on Fire” rating from PolitiFact this week for claiming his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, “calls in his friend Joe Biden to actually put the DOJ on Virginia parents.” No evidence indicates that Biden or McAuliffe were involved in Garland’s decision-making, and both the White House and McAuliffe have denied the allegation.

Nevertheless, Youngkin repeated the claim at an Oct. 13 rally in Culpeper, Va., after he had been fact-checked: “He calls his friend Joe Biden. Joe Biden calls the attorney general. And the attorney general calls the FBI in to silence parents.” An abbreviated version of all this has made it into a new Youngkin campaign ad.

Asked about the claim, Youngkin spokesman Matt Wolking said in an email that McAuliffe had refused to take a position on Garland’s memo and therefore “admitted he won’t stand up for Virginia parents being targeted and intimidated by his party’s DOJ.”

These Republicans are turning a one-page memo on public safety into a dystopian plot in which Big Brother erases well-meaning parents for thinking freely.

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The reality is school officials are reporting more concerns for their safety — some attendees at their meetings have been arrested for physical violence — and the Justice Department is calling for strategy sessions between federal and local law enforcement, a task force and dedicated lines of communication to address the threats, and training for school board members and others who might be targeted.

Garland’s memo doesn’t direct the FBI to “spy” on parents, as Jordan claimed. Hawley claimed that, for the first time in American history, the FBI was being told to “intervene” in local school board meetings. That’s not accurate.

Dissenting parents would not be “silenced” by the feds under the attorney general’s memo, as DeSantis, McCarthy and Youngkin have said. Garland wrote, “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.”

McCarthy’s spokesman makes a fair point: The Justice Department’s action could have a chilling effect on legitimate debate. The department says the federal government could be prosecuting some offenses itself or assisting local authorities handling these cases.

But the memo, and the Senate testimony from Monaco and Clarke, make clear that only criminal conduct would be targeted, not free speech.

These claims earn Four Pinocchios.

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