The Justice Department’s work to address threats of violence against school officials is not meant to stifle constitutionally protected speech or to silence parents who disagree with school boards’ decisions, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday.
Garland’s defense of his Oct. 4 memo on the subject came in response to harsh and extended questioning from Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee, who said his actions were a politically motivated effort to stop parents from voicing concerns about issues like schools’ response to COVID-19 and whether teachers are discussing “critical race theory” in class.
“The Biden administration is going to go after parents who object to some racist, hate-America curriculum,” said Ranking Member Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican.
The issue dominated a Justice Department oversight hearing, overshadowing questions about issues like voting rights, hate crimes, and investigations into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Some Republicans also questioned Garland about unfounded claims of a conflict of interest because of his son-in-law’s work with an education company, claims he denied.
Garland’s memo called for his agency’s officials to respond to “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff” by meeting with local schools and law enforcement to discuss strategies for addressing those threats. The Justice Department will also “open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response,” he said in that memo.
The directive came days after the National School Boards Association wrote to the White House, asking for the Biden administration to stop a surge in “threats or actual acts of violence” involving schools. School board members around the country have reported being followed home, receiving verbal threats of physical violence, and other concerns in recent months. The NSBA said the incidents should be reviewed to see if they could be classified as domestic terrorism under the USA PATRIOT Act, an anti-terrorism statute, among other federal laws.
Memo becomes a political talking point
Republicans around the country have seized on the memo, accusing Garland of labeling concerned parents as “domestic terrorists.” It has also become an issue in the upcoming Virginia governor’s election, which is seen by some as a testing ground for messages that may be used in midterm elections.
Garland stressed Thursday that his memo did not refer the PATRIOT Act or related anti-terrorism laws. He said he did not have any contact with the White House before drafting the memo and that he was acting on reports of threats around the country and media coverage of the NSBA letter.
“I want to be clear, the Justice Department supports and defends the First Amendment right of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish about the education of their children, about the curriculum taught in their schools,” Garland told Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio. “Like you, I can’t imagine any circumstances in which the PATRIOT Act would be used in circumstances of parents complaining about their children nor can I imagine a circumstance in which that would be labeled as domestic terrorism.”
Garland said the Justice Department is concerned about a range of violent threats, including those against police, health officials, and hate crimes.
Democrats on the committee said they support the effort. They read local reports of school administrators being physically attacked over masking policies and other issues. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said his wife is a school board member who has received “deeply disturbing death threats.” He called his Republican colleagues’ response to those concerns “dangerous, disgusting, and utterly shameful.”
But Republicans insisted there was no federal role in addressing such threats.
Jordan said Garland’s efforts amounted to a “snitch line on parents started five days after a left-wing political organization asked for it.” The NSBA is a non-partisan organization that represents state associations to address the interests of school boards across the country.
“I think your memo, Mr. Attorney General, was the last straw,” he said. “I think it was a catalyst for a great awakening that is just getting started.”
Conflict of interest accusations
Other Republicans accused Garland of a conflict of interest in writing the memo because his son-in-law co-founded Panorama Education, a company that focuses on data to improve social-emotional learning and school climate efforts.
Some Republicans have conflated those efforts with “critical race theory,” a decades-old legal theory that has become a catchall for some who oppose how schools discuss race and history. But social-emotional learning efforts are not critical race theory. Instead, they focus on helping students identify and strengthen their own skills in areas like relationship building and decisionmaking and to apply those skills in and outside of the classroom.
Republicans on the committee did not detail any threats of violence or school board disputes connected to Panorama Education.
In response to questions from Education Week, a spokesperson for Panorama Education said the company “does not have any affiliation with the Attorney General or the Department of Justice” and that Garland’s son-in-law, Xan Tanner, “is no longer an employee and does not manage the company’s operations.”
“Panorama is not connected with critical race theory (CRT), and more broadly Panorama is not a curriculum tool,” the company said in a statement. “Panorama is a technology platform that school districts use to survey their students, families, and teachers ... We were disappointed to hear the false claim today, as it’s simply not true, and very far from Panorama’s actual work.”
Garland denied that efforts to address violent threats were driven by any personal interests.
“This memorandum doesn’t relate to the financial interests of anyone. This memorandum is aimed at violence and threats of violence,” he said. “There’s no company in America—and hopefully no law-abiding citizen in America—who believes that threats of violence should be tolerated.”