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Garland defends memo on threats against school board officials

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Attorney General Merrick Garland defended his recent memo regarding violent threats against school board officials, attempting to set the record straight amid inflammatory attacks from Republicans during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.

“The only thing the Justice Department is concerned about is violence and threats of violence,” said Garland. “That’s all it’s about.”

His memo, which came out earlier this month, directed the FBI to meet with state and local leaders to discuss strategies for addressing the recent spike in physical assaults, threats and harassment reported by school board members around the country as heated debates over COVID-19 policies and lessons on racism in public schools have led to clashes between parents and educators.

Merrick Garland
Attorney General Merrick Garland testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Tasos Katopodis/Pool via Reuters)

Throughout Wednesday’s hearing, however, Republican senators sought to portray the memo as much more than that, accusing Garland of weaponizing the Justice Department and infringing on parents’ First Amendment rights.

“Your memo treats parents speaking freely to be worthy of the department’s heavy investigative and prosecutorial hand,” charged Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee’s top Republican, in his opening statement. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accused Garland of “siccing the feds on parents at school boards across America” and declared, “You should resign in disgrace.”

Garland’s memo quickly became a point of contention among Republicans after it was released on Oct. 4. But much of the outrage has centered not on the contents of the memo itself but on a letter sent days earlier to President Biden by the National School Board Association (NSBA). The letter, which called for federal law enforcement to respond to the “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation” against public school officials, described recent attacks on educators as “a form of domestic terrorism” and urged the Biden administration to assess whether such incidents violate the Patriot Act and federal hate crime laws.

The NSBA has since apologized for the language in its letter following fierce backlash from parents and several state school board associations, as well as Republican officials. But while Garland acknowledged that his memo had been issued, in part, in response to the NSBA’s request for federal law enforcement assistance, he stood by the guidance released by the Justice Department, which, he emphasized, contained no references to domestic terrorism or the Patriot Act.

“I did not adopt every concern in their letter,” Garland said when asked by Grassley if he would rescind his memo in light of the NSBA’s apology. “I adopted only the concern about violence and threats of violence, and that hasn’t changed.”

Nonetheless, Republicans continued to conflate Garland’s memo with the NSBA’s letter, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accused the attorney general of applying a domestic terrorist label to the father of a reported sexual assault victim at a Virginia school.

“I never called him that,” exclaimed a visibly frustrated Garland. “That’s not correct.” The man in question had been arrested for disorderly conduct at a school board meeting in June.

Chuck Grassley
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at Wednesday's hearing. (Tasos Katopodis/Pool via Reuters)

The attorney general also attempted to dispute the notion put forth by a number of Republicans that the Justice Department guidance was intended to quell free speech, engaging in a terse back-and-forth with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who repeatedly asked whether Garland considered “the chilling impact your memorandum would have on parents exercising their constitutional rights.”

“I don't believe it’s reasonable to read this memo as chilling anyone’s rights,” said Garland, insisting that it “expressly recognizes the constitutional right to make arguments about your children’s education.” In fact, the second line of the one-page missive reads: “While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection doesn’t extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D- Ill., delivers opening remarks as U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on October 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Tom Brenner/Pool via Getty Images)
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at the hearing. (Tom Brenner/Pool via Getty Images)

Garland said the threats against school board members are part of “a rising tide of violence” targeting a range of public figures, from teachers and election administrators to members of Congress and the media.

“A core responsibility of the Justice Department is protecting Americans from violence and threats of violence,” he said.

Some Senate Democrats came to Garland’s defense, including the committee’s chairman, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said that those who dismiss the dangers currently faced by school board members are “out of touch with reality.”

“If you don't believe me, type ‘school board violence’ into your computer and take a look at what’s happening,” said Durbin, reading off a handful of examples of the news articles he encountered during such a search.

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