DOJ memo on threats to local school boards lambasted by Republicans at U.S. House hearing

By: - March 27, 2023 4:20 am

School lockers in a hallway. Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans on Thursday last week continued to press accusations that a “woke agenda” is deteriorating parents’ rights in their local school districts.

The first hearing this Congress of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government convened to examine whether a 2021 Department of Justice memo played a role in “chilling” parents’ First Amendment rights at local public school board meetings.

The GOP has for roughly 18 months targeted an Oct. 4, 2021 memo issued by Attorney General Merrick Garland instructing federal law enforcement across the U.S. to “open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response” on possible criminal threats to local school board members over politically charged issues that flared up during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The single-page document by Garland directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be on alert for “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” aimed at local school officials and teachers.

Garland has defended the memo, including during appearances before Congress.

In the panel’s two-hour hearing — occurring two days after a separate House Judiciary subcommittee released a 21-page report about the memo — GOP lawmakers criticized the Biden administration for intimidating parents “into silence by siccing federal law enforcement on them.”

“That (First Amendment) right has been significantly stifled over the past few years because the leftists have decided they apparently know better than parents do,” said the panel’s chair, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, in his opening statement.

“​​That is an outrage and the American people are rising up to say that they will no longer tolerate it as the radical leftists push this woke agenda on America’s children,” he continued.

Democrats disagreed with the premise of Thursday’s hearing.

“Having served on school boards and having seen what’s been happening across the country in recent months, in recent years, I’d have to say that the real First Amendment threat that our schools, teachers, students and parents are facing is the attempt to turn classrooms into the epicenter of divisive culture wars,” said ranking member Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania.

But the witnesses invited by the majority echoed Johnson’s statements.

“One minute you’re making peanut butter and jelly, the next minute the FBI is calling you,” said Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms For Liberty, a group that says one of its members was contacted by federal authorities.

No parent or caretaker has been federally prosecuted since Garland issued the directive.

GOP report

The report on the Garland memo released on March 21 by a separate House Judiciary subcommittee cited FBI data stating 25 inquiries under the threat tag “EDUOFFICIALS” had been opened since the bureau began tracking the incidents. Such tags are routine labeling used by federal law enforcement to organize reports and assess trends.

The report — published by the House Judiciary’s Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government — concluded that Biden officials “colluded” with school board association leaders “to create a justification to use federal law-enforcement and counterterrorism resources against parents.”

Correspondence between the National School Boards Association and administration officials occurred in the days before Garland issued the memo.

The NSBA has since apologized for pressing for federal action during a wave of heated school board meeting interactions. A May report commissioned by the association documented the back-and-forth between its leaders and the White House.

The subcommittee cites the NSBA commissioned report and nearly 1,500 pages of documents from the Department of Justice and Department of Education it gained access to after issuing a subpoena to the agencies in February, according to the report.

Scanlon said there are different types of speech in question.

“There’s a huge difference between attempts to suppress free speech based on content as we’ve been seeing in recent years, and addressing speech that may be criminal because it threatens violence, which we have seen directed toward educators and school board members across the country,” she said. “Our Republican colleagues have tried to frame these potentially criminal acts to intimidate school board officials as examples of protected free speech by caring and involved parents. They are not.”

The subcommittee’s chairman, Johnson, promised that the hearing is “surely not going to be the last” on the topic.



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Ashley Murray
Ashley Murray

Ashley Murray covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include domestic policy and appropriations.