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Merrick Garland is right to offer to help school boards deal with increasing threats

There's a big difference between the exercise of free speech and mob rule.
Image: People talk before a rally against critical race theory at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021.
People talk before a rally against critical race theory at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images file

It would be foolish to suggest that the people who overran the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to prevent a duly elected Congress from certifying the victory of the duly elected next president were merely exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. But as school board members across the country are subjected to death threats and physical intimidation from the promoters of lies and noxious causes, we’re being asked to believe that the disturbances are a free speech exercise.

The apology was nothing but red meat to Republicans who predictably slobbered as they pounced upon it.

That’s why it was disappointing that the board of directors of the National School Boards Association apologized for a Sept. 29 letter its president and interim executive director sent the White House describing violent and threatening behavior at school board meetings across the country as “the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

The apology was nothing but red meat to Republicans who predictably slobbered as they pounced upon it. Attorney General Merrick Garland had responded to the group’s letter with a memo urging the FBI to assist local school boards with threat assessment. When the group apologized, Rep. Jim Jordan, who represents Ohio’s 4th Congressional District, demanded that Garland withdraw that memo.

“Because the NSBA letter was the basis for your memorandum and​ ​given that your memorandum has been and will continue to be read as threatening parents and​ ​chilling their protected First Amendment rights,” he wrote to Garland, “the only responsible course of action is for you​ ​to fully and unequivocally withdraw your memorandum immediately​.”

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who when he’s not giving a thumbs-up at an insurrectionist pre-party is calling for some Democrat or some Democrat’s appointee to resign, stayed true to form: "Merrick Garland mobilized the FBI to intimidate parents without legal basis and, we now know, premised on misinformation he didn’t bother to verify,” Hawley tweeted. “It was a dangerous abuse of authority that has badly compromised the Justice Dept’s integrity and Garland's. He should resign."

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Garland rebuffed the suggestion that he walk back his memo, to say nothing of Hawley’s absurd demand.

“The purpose of this memorandum is to get our law enforcement to assess the extent of the problem. And if there is no problem, if states and local law enforcement are capable of handling the problem, then there is no need for our involvement,” Garland said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “This memo does not say to begin prosecuting anybody. It says to make assessments. That’s what we do in the Justice Department. It has nothing to do with politics.”

It’s not a surprise that lawmakers who have spent eight months minimizing an all-out assault on the Capitol would try to convince us that what we’ve been seeing unfold at school board meetings (and on school campuses generally) is nothing but the exercise of free speech.

Yes, the school board association’s most recent correspondence said its directors “regret and apologize for the letter” and that “there was no justification for some of the language included in that letter,” but those directors do not deny that school board meetings — and school campuses more broadly — have become frightening.

Because how could they?

In Stanley, North Carolina, the chair of the school board resigned this month because, he said, he’d received death threats related to his vote requiring masks in school. Last month, an Arizona man mad that his child had been ordered to quarantine reportedly brought zip ties with him to the principal’s office and threatened to make a citizen’s arrest. Also last month, the Sacramento Bee quoted a man at the Rocklin Unified School District Board of Education, telling the board, “You’re lucky there’s not a lot more people here because we’re getting really frustrated, and you’re gonna need a lot more police than that.”

And it continues. Tuesday evening in Portland, Oregon, a crowd of protesters ignoring a mask mandate and security officers forced the members of the school board to abandon their meeting space and hold their meeting virtually. According to journalist Sergio Olmos, who provided a blow-by-blow account on Twitter, the protest was spearheaded by People’s Rights, a far-right group started by Ammon Bundy. And when the school board members left, those protesters used the space to hold their own meeting.

That’s not a triumph of the First Amendment. It's mob rule. And the Department of Justice has every right to intervene.

That’s not a triumph of the First Amendment. It's mob rule.

After the NSBA’s letter to the White House, state school board associations in Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania announced their secession from the national organization. The Ohio School Boards Association, according to Ohio Capital Journal, doesn’t dispute that there’s been interference that has subjected “individual board members to threats of violence, abuse, or harassment,” but insists that “dealing with such interference should be dealt with at the local level, not by federal officials.”

As Garland stated Wednesday, if local officials are capable, that’s good. They should protect those school board officials who’ve been threatened. But there’s no reason to believe the average local school board has the sophistication by itself to stay ahead of bad actors such as the Proud Boys and People’s Rights or to properly assess threats that they may receive.

Free speech is an essential component of our democracy, but threatening officials and forcing them out of public meetings is not. Perhaps if Jordan and Hawley weren’t so dedicated to defending the insurrectionists who forced members of Congress to run from their chambers, they’d be more disturbed at the mini-re-enactments happening nationwide.