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All 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are demanding that Attorney General Merrick Garland rescind his controversial school board memo after they discovered earlier this month that the FBI had created a “threat tag” to track alleged threats to school personnel.
The letter referenced an internal email revealed by a Justice Department whistleblower that shows how the FBI criminal and counterterrorism divisions in October created the tag “EDUOFFICIALS” in order to “track instances of related threats” to board members, teachers, school administrators and staff.
Garland’s memo stems from a letter the National School Boards Association sent to President Biden in late September complaining about rising instances of angry parents speaking out at school board meetings against divisive, controversial curriculum as well as sexually inappropriate books and other materials in school libraries. The letter likened such behavior to “domestic terrorism.”
The NSBA has since apologized for the letter, which has caused an exodus of state-level school board organizations.
In October, Garland told lawmakers during sworn testimony he could not “imagine any circumstance in which the Patriot Act would be used in the circumstances of parents complaining about their children, nor… a circumstance where they would be labeled as domestic terrorists,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter to the AG. House Judiciary Republicans have launched a probe of their own to see if there was any collusion between the NSBA and the Biden administration regarding the situation.
Garland also testified that he does “not think that parents getting angry at school boards for whatever reason constitute domestic terrorism. It’s not even a close question.”
But an Oct. 4 memo from Garland called on the FBI to “use its authority” against a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff,” which ultimately led to the threat tag, according to the whistleblower.
And now, Senate Judiciary Republicans are demanding that Garland rescind his memo in a letter that begins, “Are concerned parents domestic terrorists or not?”
The letter was first reported by the Washington Times.
The GOP senators have previously called on Garland to look into free speech concerns stemming from his memo, but they noted that the latest whistleblower disclosures had added urgency to the situation.
“In light of a disturbing new revelation about the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division following your directive, we call on you to withdraw your October 4 memorandum and make abundantly clear through words and actions that no arm of the government, including the offices under your command, may be used to chill criticism of local government officials,” the letter to Garland said.
“By involving the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division in this matter, that is exactly what you have done,” the letter, which was led by the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), continued.
“Parents and other citizens who get impassioned at school-board meetings are not domestic terrorists,” said the letter. “You may believe that, but too many people involved in this issue seem to think harsh words can be criminalized. Getting the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division involved in the matter only makes this worse — dramatically worse.”
The letter pointed out previous assurances from Garland that nothing in his memo should be construed by parents as threatening, but “the subsequent reaction of American parents and the public shows it has had a clear chilling effect on them.”
“All of us have received hundreds of letters and emails from our constituents who are angry and concerned about the idea that the FBI will be tracking what they say at local school board meetings,” the letter continued, according to the Times. “Despite your testimony to the contrary, these parents have good reason to be concerned.”
The GOP senators also noted that the FBI joint message “naturally leads normal, loving, and impassioned parents to wonder whether the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division – an eyebrow raising fact that cannot be emphasized enough – will be reviewing and storing videos of them speaking at school-board meetings.”
Last month, FBI officials told various news outlets that the Bureau does not involve itself with investigating parents who speak out at school board meetings, and that “in no way changes the long-standing requirements for opening an investigation, nor does it represent a shift in how the FBI prioritizes threats.”
“We need you to make clear in very simple terms that violence and true threats of violence are well-defined, discreet ideas in the law and do not include harsh tones and strong criticisms that might make local school-board officials feel disrespected or uncomfortable,” the letter to Garland continued. “There is no other way to communicate this to the American people other than by unequivocally withdrawing your October 4 memorandum.”
The Times reported that the letter was signed by GOP Sens. Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
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