Concern over excessive federal intrusion into state affairs fueled a stormy Senate session last week, as GOP senators grilled U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland over his mobilizing the FBI to investigate parents who have protested mask mandates, and the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) in their children’s schools.
CRT– a radical doctrine that preaches that racism is embedded in American society and that all social evils arise from “white power and white privilege”—is being promoted by progressives who have the backing of the Biden administration to advance this ideology in the nation’s public schools.
Core components of CRT include socialist-Marxist ideas that capitalism is a pillar of inequality, and that all people fit into either the mold of “oppressed” or “oppressor.”
For many years, CRT was the province of university, law school and academic journals. Now it is being promoted for public institutions, public schools, teacher training programs, and many corporate settings.
Parents across the country have passionately objected to this revolutionary doctrine being implemented into school curricula, resulting in heated confrontations at school board meetings. Parent bodies in many school districts have also objected to mask mandates and to the inclusion of graphically violent and inappropriate literature in some school reading programs.
To quell mounting opposition, the left-leaning National School Board Association (NSBA), a group politically aligned with teachers unions, sent a letter in late September to President Biden urging him to investigate families and community members who have taken part in these meetings.
The letter referenced “a growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation—more than 20– occurring across the nation,” without offering details about any of the alleged incidents. It described the opposition of dissenting parents as “a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
“As these acts of malice…against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the NSBA letter stated, asking for the Justice Department, FBI, Homeland Security and Secret Service to get involved.
The letter went on to list laws such as the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the PATRIOT Act and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act as potential statutes that might be applied against people “threatening” school board officials.
Within just a few days of the letter going public, AG Garland sent out a memo directing the FBI to organize a task force and hold meetings with federal, state and local law enforcement, to strategize how to deal with “harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against school board officials.
Backlash Forces NSBA Apology
The incident sparked a nationwide uproar, with 21 states who are members of the NSBA cutting ties with the organization, or threatening to do so unless it retracted the inflammatory letter with its lurid language urging coercive tactics against parents.
State school boards in Florida, Montana, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia released statements opposing the NSBA’s letter, as well as excessive federal involvement in local school board meetings, according to a report in the Washington Examiner.
The NSBA came under fire from all sides for its overblown rhetoric casting parents’ desire for more input in their children’s education as domestic terrorism. The organization was harshly criticized by several educational groups, state school boards and even some members of its executive board, for involving federal law enforcement in matters belonging to state jurisdiction.
Members of the U.S Commission on Civil Rights criticized the Biden administration for issuing the memo, saying there was no justification for such drastic steps. Critics noted the disorder at these meetings mostly involved people shouting and talking out of turn, perhaps an occasional scuffle—nothing local law enforcement could not handle.
In a letter to Garland, half of the eight members of the Commission on Civil Rights requested “specific examples” of “harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” which Garland claimed as evidence for the need for federal intervention in parent protests at schools.
Pushback came from some federal prosecutors as well. Attorney General Eric Schmitt of Missouri blasted the DOJ directive as “outrageous” and “unconstitutional” in a letter to Garland.
“Joe Biden is weaponizing his DOJ and using the FBI to pursue parents advocating for their kids at school board meetings,” Schmitt told The Heartlander, a Missouri paper. “It’s meant to quell dissent and intimidate. It’s dangerous and they have no jurisdiction. Not in Missouri. Not in any state.”
Schmitt pointed out that the federal government does not have jurisdiction over local school issues and noted the potentially dangerous precedent this could set in regards to restricting citizens’ freedom of speech.
The powerful backlash combined with the threatened loss of revenue from states canceling their membership in NSBA—large school districts pay more than $8,000 annually–had an immediate effect; a cowed NSBA wrote letters of apology to both the White House and member states.
“On behalf of NSBA, we regret and apologize for the letter,” the NSBA said, noting that “there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter.”
The apology letter, however, stopped short of rescinding its request for federal backup in dealing with “threats” and “violence,” according to Education Week. As the Senate Judiciary Oversight Hearing last week showed, the genie was out of the bottle and not likely to return.
FOIA Documents Suggest White House Coordination
Garland’s memo was sent to federal prosecutors all across the country and generated the creation of a “snitch line,” as a centralized way to report threats of violence against school board officials.
The attorney general faced intense questioning about these issues from Senate Republicans during last Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Oversight Hearing. Why were such drastic measures implemented absent any concrete evidence of violent threats to back up NSBA’s allegations, senators wanted to know.
GOP senators were also troubled by the fact that Garland’s initiative did not originate from the Justice Department. According to documents obtained through a FOIA request, the NSBA appeared to have collaborated on its letter with political staffers at the White House.
Parents Defending Education, an advocacy organization, obtained emails through the Freedom of Information Act showing that NSBA officials were in contact with White House staffers before the group sent its explosive letter to President Biden decrying alleged threats against school board officials.
One email, from NSBA CEO Chip Slaven, explains that White House staffers “requested additional information on some of the specific threats,” suggesting close coordination between the two parties.
“The NSBA’s letter was thus the pretext for Attorney General Garland’s memo less than a week later,” a spokesman for Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, told the Daily Caller.
Sen. Ben Saase: ‘It’s About the Politicization of the DOJ’
The subject of NSBA-White House collusion and how the DOJ was allegedly co-opted into executing the school board memo, was raised by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, at the Senate Hearing in a biting exchange with Garland.
“I’m pretty sure you believe that local law enforcement is more than able to handle some idiots at school board meetings, but you made it a federal issue and I don’t have any idea why, and at no point today have you offered us a shred of data,” he continued.
“I will be happy to get a report back to you, but this is not about the American parent class,” Garland fudged.
“I know. It’s about the politicization of DOJ, and you decided to submit as a vessel, and you know better,” Sen. Sasse responded.
“…. We received a letter from the national association of school boards—” the attorney general said in self-defense, before Sasse cut him off.
“No, you didn’t receive some anonymous letter,” Sasse shot back. “White House political staff co-wrote it with this [NSBA] organization…” You then wrote a memo, coordinating with political staffers at the White House, exaggerating a threat so that you could make sure parents would feel intimidated. …You know these facts to be true, yet you still won’t disavow your memo. Why?”
Either you were just a vessel of political staffers at the White House or you yourself are in favor of politicizing the DOJ,” Sasse retorted.
Senators repeatedly asked Garland whether, in view of the NSBA’s retraction of their letter with its hyperbolic allegations, he regretted his law enforcement initiative and would call off the federal investigation of dissenting parents.
“Will you rescind your letter?” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Garland bluntly during the stormy Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Garland refused to answer directly, saying that since his Oct. 4 memo, there have been more reports by school board members about “death threats” against them.
No Evidence of Violent Threats
“Normally, things involving state and local government entities like school boards are not federal,” Lee told the attorney general. He said he and his staff went through every news source mentioned in the school board association’s letter and found no credible evidence of violent threats.
“There was no explicit death threat and I reiterate my concern that not every outburst or expression of concern by neighbors among neighbors, at a local school board meeting, warrants a federal investigation. It certainly doesn’t warrant the involvement of 94 U.S. attorneys in a way that threatens, intimidates and intends to chill First Amendment activity,” Sen. Lee said.
The senator noted that 17 attorneys general have reported “no flood” of threats of violence against school board members, “nothing that they can’t handle at the state and local level.”
“I question seriously the role of the federal government in protecting people at local school board meetings from their neighbors,” Sen. Lee said. “In hindsight, would you agree that a natural consequence of your memo could be chilling free speech, protected speech by parents protesting local school board policies?”
Garland disagreed, saying “the memo is aimed only at violence and threats of violence, not at “vigorous debate.” He went on to downplay the significance of the task force he impaneled, saying it was only “an offer of assistance,” if necessary, to local law enforcement.
‘Parents Are Completely Protected.’ Seriously.
In one exchange, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accused Garland of “siccing” the FBI on law-abiding parents. “This is shameful, this testimony, your directive, your performance is shameful,” Cotton said. “Thank G-d you’re not on the Supreme Court. You should resign in disgrace, judge.”
Garland continued to insist that his memorandum was not aimed at curtailing parents’ right to object at school board meetings. [Parents] are protected by the First Amendment as long as there are no threats of violence, they are completely protected.”
But Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., exposed the hollowness behind these words by pointing to a separate memo issued by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana [following Garland’s creation of a task force].
The memo, a section of which he read aloud in the Senate chamber, listed numerous “federal crimes” that parents could be prosecuted for, and encouraged prosecutors to involve the FBI. The criminal conduct outlined in the memo included sending too many angry emails or making too many irate phone calls to school board officials.
“You’ve testified today you’re focused only on violence. That’s not what your U.S. attorneys are saying,” Hawley scoffed.
Garland insisted he hadn’t seen the memo in question prior to the Senate hearing.
You haven’t seen this memo because it’s not a high enough priority, or what?” Hawley asked.
“It’s not a question of priority,” Garland said, adding that he hadn’t seen the memo because no one had sent it to him.
“What do you mean no one has sent you the memo,” Hawley questioned. “You run the United States Department of Justice, do you not?”
“I’ll leave it at this, General Garland,” Hawley said. “You have weaponized the FBI and the Department of Justice. Your attorneys are now cataloguing all the way they might prosecute parents because they want to be involved in their children’s education. It is wrong. It is unprecedented to my knowledge of the history of this country.”
Hawley called for Garland’s resignation, singling out his abuse of his position for political ends.
“Merrick Garland mobilized the FBI to intimidate parents without legal basis and, we now know, premised on misinformation he didn’t bother to verify,” Hawley tweeted. “It was a dangerous abuse of authority that has badly compromised the Justice Dept’s integrity and Garland’s.”
Keeping a Database on Parents?
Garland also denied suggestions from lawmakers that the White House effectively used him for political purposes via the NSBA letter, in order to have grounds for the DOJ to “intimidate parents.”
“This kind of looks like something that would come out of some communist country,” Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told the attorney general. He went on to question whether the FBI could be keeping a database of parents who have been reported.
What is the department doing with tips it receives on this [“snitch line”], and what are you doing with those parents who have been reported?” he demanded. The AG sidestepped the question.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accused Garland of failing to do appropriate research before issuing an “abusive” memorandum instructing the DOJ to investigate parents.
“There is a difference between law and politics, and Attorney General Garland, you know the difference,” Cruz said, “Law is based on facts. It is impartial. It is not used as a tool of political retribution. This memo was not law. This memo was politics.”
“In the [NSBA] letter, which you told the House of Representatives was the basis of this abusive memo, how many incidents are cited there?” Cruz asked.
“I’d have to look back at the memo,” Garland responded. He admitted he did not know how many of the incidents were “violent.”
“There’s a reason you don’t know,” said Cruz. “Because you didn’t care, and nobody in your office cared, to find out. … During this hearing, I counted 20 incidents cited. Of those 20, 15 on their face are non-violent.”
Sen. Cruz Points to Conflict of Interest
Cruz also questioned Garland about an apparent conflict of interest with the AG’s son-in-law, whose company reportedly sells Critical Race Theory educational materials. Cruz pressed the AG on how much influence this may have exerted on his decision to involve the FBI in disputes between parents and school boards over implementing CRT ideology.
“If Critical Race Theory is taught in public schools, does your son-in-law profit, does he make more money?” Cruz asked.
Garland pushed back, saying his memo had nothing to do with critical race theory.
“Did you ask an ethics question [over possible conflict of interest]?
“If I thought there was any reasonable — if there was a conflict of interest, I would do that,” Garland said.
“So you’re saying no, just answer it directly,” Cruz urged. “Did you seek an ethics opinion?
Cruz and Garland continued to spar until Cruz’s time for questioning expired. “Let the record reflect the Attorney General refuses to answer whether he sought an ethics opinion,” the Texas senator concluded. “Apparently ethics are not a terribly high priority of the Justice Department.”
Senators To AG Garland: Show Us The Evidence
In the aftermath of the heated Senate Judiciary Oversight Hearing, Republican senators led by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, and Sen. Ben Saase, R-Nebraska, sent a letter to Attorney General Garland requesting the evidence he used to draft the controversial School Board Memo, based on the NSBA letter.
The senators had grilled Garland at the Senate hearing about the misguided memo, arguing that the directive would exert a chilling effect on free speech, and on parents exercising their constitutional rights to be involved in their children’s education.
“Please respond in writing by Monday, November 1, 2021,” the senators wrote. “Because you were able to distill your evidence and craft a memo that fixed the gaze of the FBI directly on concerned parents across this country in just four days, you should be able to share that evidence with us in the same period of time.”
“Parents who are angry at school board members, and even verbally attack them on a personal level, are not necessarily making true threats, and it is not the job of law enforcement – and cannot be the job of law enforcement, especially the FBI – to make sure parents are nice to their elected officials,” the letter continued. “They are certainly not domestic terrorists who require the use of tools such as the PATRIOT Act and the expertise of the National Security Division.”
The GOP committee members pointed to how the NSBA’s letter referenced a news article that described incidents when large crowds showed up at meetings to address issues that “were not on the agenda,” and other instances of people refusing to wear masks at a meeting, in protest against a school district’s mask mandate.
“Large numbers of citizens expressing their concerns in an appropriate forum is not a matter for law enforcement, and it is even more difficult to imagine what role federal law enforcement would play in such a scenario,” the letter states.
Even if not wearing masks did violate the law, the senators wrote, “at most it is a petty offense wholly unworthy of the federal government’s attention.”
The letter concluded by saying that it is inappropriate for the federal government to use its “awesome powers” in order “to quash those who question local school boards.”
“By even suggesting that possibility,” it added, “important speech by American citizens will be chilled in school board meetings across this country. Your job now is to make clear to all stakeholders and the American people that such action is decidedly not the role of the federal government nor the role of any other government in the United States – in fact, it can never be.”