'Conservative persecution fantasy'? Democrats deflect from 'domestic terrorism' school board letter

In wake of report that found no basis for federal intervention, GOP asks why attorney general has yet to rescind memo that allegedly sicced feds on parents.

Published: March 23, 2023 11:08pm

A year and a half after Attorney General Merrick Garland's controversial memo directing the FBI and Justice Department's criminal and national security divisions to get involved in nationwide threats against school boards, congressional Republicans are asking what it accomplished other than terrifying parents protesting curriculum choices and COVID-19 policies.

At a House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee hearing Thursday, Chair Mike Johnson (R-La.) questioned why Garland had yet to retract the memo even though the National School Boards Association long ago apologized for its "domestic terrorism" letter to President Biden that quickly prompted Garland's response but also a rolling exodus of state affiliates.

The GOP majority and Democratic minority spent much of the hearing accusing each other of being the bigger censor: chilling the speech of parents by portraying advocacy for their children as domestic terrorism, versus promoting school "book bans" that disproportionately target LGBTQ and racial subjects.

Republicans cited their Weaponization Subcommittee's interim staff report on the basis for Garland's memo, which found U.S. attorney's offices nationwide told DOJ headquarters there was "no legitimate law-enforcement basis" for using federal resources, including counterterrorism, to investigate school board-related threats.

NSBA "colluded" with the Biden administration — "and we use that term intentionally" — to "sic federal law enforcement" on parents under the pretext of the Patriot Act without actually specifying the threats DOJ was targeting, so parents had to "guess at which speech is legally allowed," Johnson said. 

He cited FBI whistleblowers who told committee Republicans they were "stunned" by Garland's memo and said it suggested the "demand for terrorism vastly outstrips the supply."

The committee has received only 14 pages from the FBI in response to subpoenas last month, Johnson said.

"Democrats and the media would go berserk" if a Republican president called them domestic terrorists, he said, pledging to use congressional spending power to rein in agencies from investigating parents.

Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas) held up a series of images from racial justice and Antifa riots in 2020 to illustrate the administration's indifference to actual political violence. "This is what domestic terror looks like," he declared.

Garland's memo called for creation of a national hotline to report threats against school boards but not one for the actions of a "highly coordinated domestic terrorism organization," Antifa, Hunt said.

"The real First Amendment threat" is the "attempt to turn classrooms into the epicenter of divisive culture wars" through book bans and censorship of curricula, ranking member Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) retorted, describing such bills in state legislatures as "education gag orders."

She claimed "MAGA extremists" were trying to erase "accurate teachings of racism," to the point where one textbook removed the race of civil rights activist Rosa Parks to avoid controversy. 

"Any reasonable person can see" the difference between political disagreement and violent threats of the sort that targeted "law enforcement in this very building," Scanlon said, in the first of many Democrats' references to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. She accused Republicans of hypocrisy for the arrest of a Parkland shooting victim's father for disrupting a House hearing on guns Thursday.

GOP lawmakers have "wasted untold taxpayer dollars" on a "conservative persecution fantasy" despite the fact that neither the NSBA letter nor Garland memo mentioned parents, full committee ranking member Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said. Without naming the conservative activist, Nadler blamed the Manhattan Institute's Chris Rufo for the controversy.

The U.S. is setting a bad example for the world by legislating bans on books, the Democrats' lone witness, PEN America Washington Managing Director Nadine Johnson testified, estimating 2,500 such bans in the past year. It's an attempt to impose the wishes of "a very noisy minority" on everyone through legislation, she said.

Educators "contextualize" problematic material with students, she said, and reading about the Holocaust doesn't make a child a Nazi "The more that we shield people from the world around them the worse off we'll be," she warned.

Republicans scored one small victory when Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wyo.) got Johnson to admit after repeated questioning that "of course" withholding Penthouse magazine from first graders is not "censorship."

Parents nationwide told Parents Defending Education they feared "a knock at the door" from the feds in the wake of Garland's memo, which explains why 99% of tips the activist group receives are anonymous, President Nicole Neily testified. An early draft of the NSBA letter even mentioned deploying the National Guard and military police to school board meetings, she said. 

Until Garland rescinds his memo, it will continue "hanging over parents like the Sword of Damocles," Neily said.

The administration targeted parents for protesting the "radical unscientific views" on sex and gender, among other topics, that they learned schools were teaching their children during COVID remote learning, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Tyson Langhofer testified.

It's also trying to silence parents' First Amendment rights by working to codify policies under Title IX that hide gender identity "social transitions" in schools from parents, he said.

Parents have "inherent, natural rights ... we do not coparent with the government," Moms for Liberty cofounder Tiffany Justice testified. The government tolerated Black Lives Matters riots while letting teachers' unions keep schools closed and regressing their children's learning, she said.

Noting that Department of Education data show student achievement plummeted in the wake of COVID school closures, Justice said school boards tried to silence parents for protesting their failures. "No one wanted to talk about reading proficiency," she said.

The Justice Department didn't respond to a query about why Garland had not rescinded the memo.

NSBA didn't respond when asked to comment on its portrayal in the hearing.

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