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Attorney General Garland grilled by GOP senators over DOJ memo targeting parents at school meetings

The Justice memo was in response to a national school board association letter to President Biden asking for federal law enforcement assistance

Published: October 27, 2021 9:23am

Updated: October 27, 2021 4:33pm

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday faced a litany of hard-edged Senate questions about agreeing to allow federal law enforcement to investigate alleged incidents of outspoken parents at school board meetings. 

Garland, in a memo, agreed to responded to a Sept. 29 letter from the National School Board Association to President Biden asking that the FBI, Justice Department and other federal agencies to investigate potential acts of domestic terrorism at the meetings. Parents across the nation have been voicing their concerns about the curricula being taught to their children, in addition to instances like the one currently playing out in northern Virginia, in which there was an apparent coverup of the sexual assault of a female student in a bathroom. 

Fights over these issues have become flash points between concerned parents and school board members.

"There is a difference between law and politics. And General Garland, you know the difference between law and politics. 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," Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz said at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. 

Cruz continued: "In the (association) letter, which you told the House of Representatives was the basis for this abusive memo targeting parents, how many incidents are cited that memo? You don't know how many of them were violent? How many of them were violent? You know. You don't know. There's a reason you don't know. And certainly because you didn't care and nobody in your office cared to find out."

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, another GOP committee member, told Garland it was time to resign amid concerns that the attorney general's willingness to agree to the association's request was politically motivated and moreover, an attempt to silence parents. 

"This testimony, your directive, your performance is shameful," Cotton said. "Thank God you're not on the Supreme Court. You should resign in disgrace, judge."

Garland, last week, told the House that the federal law enforcement's responses to threats against school boards would not be carried out in the same manner that they would respond to threats of domestic terrorism. The NSBA letter to the president alleged that the behavior some school board members are encountering rise to the level of "domestic terrorism."

To that end, Garland acknowledged that speaking out in protest against a school board member is protected speech under the First Amendment and is fundamentally not an act of terrorism. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee's top Republican, delivered a scathing opening statement in which he said: "The last thing the Justice Department and FBI need is a vague memo to unleash their power – especially when they've shown zero interest in holding their own accountable."

Garland maintained that his memo "responds to concerns about violence, threats of violence, other criminal conduct," as opposed to more average instances of interference by parents concerned about their children's education.

The attorney general sought to distance his memorandum from the NSBA letter that conflated parents with domestic terrorists. The memo "alters some of the language in the letter that we did not rely on and is not contained in my own memorandum. The only thing the Justice Department is concerned about is violence and threats of violence," he said, adding:

"True threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment. Those are the things we are worried about here. Those are the only things we are worried about here. We are not investigating peaceful protests or parent involvement in school board meetings.

"There is no precedent for doing that and we would never do that. We are only concerned about violence and threats of violence against school administrators, teachers, staff."

The hearing also included questions for Garland about the Justice Department's intent to prosecute cases pertaining to the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, the surge of illegal immigrants at the U.S. southern border, the Biden administration's botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and increased terror threat from the region, and the FBI's mishandling of the probe into now-convicted sexual offender Larry Nassar. 

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