Merrick Garland Isn’t ‘Criminalizing Parenting’—He’s Protecting Schoolkids
After disrupting school board meetings and threatening school board members, conservatives are crying wolf about the A.G. trying to stop that.
The latest eruption in the overheated culture war over how public schools are run began with a cry for help from a national association tasked with looking out for school board members.
And it ended with hyperventilating right-wingers crying about how Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department are supposedly targeting concerned citizens and “criminalizing parenting.”
In a memo released this week, Garland instructed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys to meet in the next 30 days with federal, state, and local enforcement agencies to discuss strategies to combat what the DOJ described in a press release as an “increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation’s public schools.”
School board meetings across the country have been disrupted by parents angry, sometimes violent so, about local directives for mask coverings to protect students and educators from COVID-19.
In the memo, Garland wrote that “while spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats or violence or efforts to intimate individuals based on their views.”
The attorney general zeroed in on school boards, which have become a flashpoint for the anger and frustration of parents who—after a lengthy lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic—suddenly find themselves with a lot to say about how public schools should operate.
“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland wrote. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”
That’s it. It was just a memo. Not exactly a sweeping and oppressive edict from King George III. No matter. The folks on the cultural right quickly responded with the modern-day equivalent of the Boston Tea Party.
The activists insist that Garland—by unleashing federal agents and federal prosecutors—is treating them like domestic terrorists.
“Dear @TheJusticeDept Merrick Garland and @FBI Director Christopher Wray,” Asra Nomani, vice president of investigations and strategy at Parents Defending Education, wrote in a tweet. “This is what a domestic terrorist looks like? You are criminalizing parenting, and you owe the people of America a swift apology.”
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted: “Attorney General Garland is weaponizing the DOJ by using the FBI to pursue concerned parents and silence them through intimidation. Florida will defend the free speech rights of its citizens and will not allow federal agents to squelch dissent.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, a MAGA mob favorite, twisted the issue even further by framing it as a race thing. The senator wrote a letter accusing Garland of trying to stifle “democratic pushback against critical race theory” and “intimidate individuals based on their views.”
Even the Wall Street Journal editorial board got swept up. It wrote in an editorial: “Is there a culture-war issue that Merrick Garland won’t jump into? We can’t think of one, and now the Attorney General is nosing the Justice Department into debates at local school boards.”
Spoiler alert: Garland is neither “criminalizing parenting” nor trying to “squelch dissent.” He is not “weaponizing the DOJ” or attempting to “intimidate individuals based on their views.” He’s not even “nosing the Justice Department into debates at local school boards.”
This is just the sort of overreaching, hyperbolic language that people in both parties use these days. It is meant to attract attention, fuel fundraising, and rally the faithful. It used to be that just talk radio shock jocks lit these rhetorical fires to create buzz. Now everyone does it.
Cultural conservatives have lost their bearings again, as tends to happen when an ideological subgroup lets their political interests conflict with what they’d said were sacred and iron-clad beliefs.
In this case, the GOP—which is no longer the law-and-order party or the pro-cop one after the insurrection of Jan. 6—continues its mudslide into hypocrisy. By 2024, the party’s slogan will be: “Give anarchy a chance”
Here’s what sparked this latest battle. In the last two months, as more schools across the country have re-opened for in-person learning and more students have found their way back to class, local school board meetings have become ground zero for parental anger and frustration over everything from mask mandates and vaccine policy to curriculum coverage of critical race theory or LGBTQ studies. People show up with signs and shout their objections about school policies they oppose. Many parents have gotten in the face of school board members, and some have even reportedly threatened them. There have been dozens of incidents so far this year, from sea to shining sea.
The National School Board Association (NSBA) is fed up. The Alexandria, VA-based organization—which claims to represent more than 90,000 school board members—fired off a letter to President Biden on Sept. 29 sounding the alarm about how “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat.”
It was the NSBA—and not Garland or the DOJ—that suggested that “as these acts of malice, violence, and threats 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 organization also asked the Biden administration to consider using the executive powers granted to it by the Patriot Act, the sweeping and controversial anti-terrorism legislation passed after the Sept 11th attacks.
Deploying the Patriot Act isn’t necessary here, and Garland has done nothing like that. He simply responded to a cry for help by convening law enforcement officials to “discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend” and “open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response by law enforcement.” He noted that “threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values.”
The attorney general has nothing to explain or apologize for. So what if the nation’s top law enforcement officer wants to make a federal case out of protecting school board members—and other school personnel? If this is indeed a national trend, as it appears to be, then that’s an appropriate response.
Of course, there ought to be a threshold for federal involvement. Three things should be true: that elected officials are being threatened, harassed or intimidated—all of which erode civil order; the inappropriate behavior spills out of the school or school board meeting and into public places like outside the homes of school officials; and there is a specific request for help from school officials or an organization such as the NSBA.
This is not about attacking parents who want to have a say in how their students are educated. Of course, if parents want to have the ultimate say in that endeavor, they’re free to homeschool their kids.
Nor is this about critical race theory. That argument is just a cynical ploy by the right-wingers to try to steer the conversation toward a more controversial topic, where they think they will enjoy more public support.
This is about intimidation and bullying, pure and simple. That behavior is aimed at school officials—and especially the members of school boards.
And it’s about competing rights. Garland’s critics are correct about one thing: People do have the right to voice their concerns about public schools. But those who work in those schools, or help run them, also have rights—chief among them the right not to be terrorized by concerned citizens run amok.