The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republicans have demanded that Attorney General Merrick Garland rescind his controversial school board memo after learning that the FBI created a “threat tag” to track risks to education personnel.
The 11 Republicans cited an internal email from a Justice Department whistleblower showing that the FBI counterterrorism and criminal divisions designated in October the tag EDUOFFICIALS to “track instances of related threats” to school administrators, board members, teachers and staff.
The Monday letter to Mr. Garland began: “Are concerned parents domestic terrorists or not?”
The senators had previously called on Mr. Garland to address free-speech concerns over his Oct. 4 memo bringing in the FBI to address “the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel,” but said Monday that the latest disclosures had raised the stakes.
“In light of a disturbing new revelation about the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division following your directive, we call on you to withdraw your October 4 memorandum and make abundantly clear through words and actions that no arm of the government, including the offices under your command, may be used to chill criticism of local government officials,” said the letter to Mr. Garland.
“By involving the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division in this matter, that is exactly what you have done,” added the Republicans, led by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the panel’s ranking member.
The internal DOJ email was obtained last month by the House Judiciary Committee Republicans, who launched an investigation into possible collusion between the Biden administration and the National School Boards Association.
Mr. Garland’s directive was spurred by a Sept. 29 request for federal intervention from the NSBA, which raised the specter of domestic terrorists fueling parental backlashes over mask mandates and critical-race theory.
“Parents and other citizens who get impassioned at school-board meetings are not domestic terrorists,” said the Senate GOP letter. “You may believe that, but too many people involved in this issue seem to think harsh words can be criminalized. Getting the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division involved in the matter only makes this worse — dramatically worse.”
At an Oct. 27 hearing, Mr. Garland told the Senate panel that there was nothing in the memo that should be interpreted as being intimidating to parents, but the Republicans said that “the subsequent reaction of American parents and the public shows it has had a clear chilling effect on them.”
“All of us have received hundreds of letters and emails from our constituents who are angry and concerned about the idea that the FBI will be tracking what they say at local school board meetings,” said the GOP letter. “Despite your testimony to the contrary, these parents have good reason to be concerned.”
They said the FBI joint message “naturally leads normal, loving, and impassioned parents to wonder whether the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division – an eyebrow raising fact that cannot be emphasized enough – will be reviewing and storing videos of them speaking at school-board meetings.”
The FBI told news outlets last month that it was not in the business of investigating outspoken parents or policing speech, and that the threat tag “in no way changes the long-standing requirements for opening an investigation, nor does it represent a shift in how the FBI prioritizes threats.”
In addition to Mr. Grassley, the Monday letter was signed by Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
“We need you to make clear in very simple terms that violence and true threats of violence are well-defined, discreet ideas in the law and do not include harsh tones and strong criticisms that might make local school-board officials feel disrespected or uncomfortable,” the letter said. “There is no other way to communicate this to the American people other than by unequivocally withdrawing your October 4 memorandum.”
Emails obtained by Parents Defending Education showed that NSBA executives coordinated with the White House before sending the Sept. 29 letter to President Biden.
In an Oct. 22 memo, the NSBA board of directors apologized for the letter, signed by two executives. Seventeen state chapters have since withdrawn their membership, participation or dues from the national organization, according to Parents Defending Education.
The House Judiciary Committee Republicans launched an investigation Oct. 27 into possible collusion between the NSBA and the Biden administration.
The NSBA letter cited two dozen news articles about rowdy school board meetings that led to two arrests, but critics argued that the gatherings were hardly mob scenes.
One of those arrested was Scott Smith of Loudoun County, Virginia, who was convicted of disorderly conduct after he sought in June to confront the board about his daughter being sexually assaulted by another student in a school bathroom. A juvenile court judge found the attacker guilty in October.
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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