Merrick Garland defends school memo at Senate hearing against GOP criticism, call for resignation

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WASHINGTON – Attorney General Merrick Garland defended his memo about assisting local school officials against violence and threats of violence, as Senate Republicans  blasted the memo as “shameful” and “intimidating,” and one called for his resignation.

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, said Garland politicized the department and urged him to revoke the Oct. 4 memo. Grassley said the memo would target parents expressing concerns about curriculum on critical race theory or about mask mandates under the First Amendment.

Merrick Garland defends school memo at Senate hearing against GOP criticism, call for resignation
© Tasos Katopodis, AP Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

“That is a poisonous, chilling effect,” Grassley said. “This kind of looks like something that would come out of a communist country.”

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Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., called for Garland’s resignation over the memo.

“You have weaponized the FBI and the Department of Justice,” Hawley said. “It is wrong. It is unprecedented to my knowledge in the history of this country.”

But Garland said he only directed federal authorities to consult and offer assistance to local officials – if necessary – about violence, threats of violence and other criminal conduct.

“The only thing we are concerned about violence and threats of violence against school officials, school teachers, school staff,” Garland said.

“We did not sic the FBI on parents,” Garland added at another point.

Garland issued his memo announcing that the Justice Department would be investigating and addressing the “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against school board members and teachers nationwide.

In addition to creating a task force and training resources, the department, he said, would also be directing the FBI to work with local law enforcement to help districts report and respond to threats. 

Committee chairman, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said Wednesday lawmakers complaining about Garland’s memo are “really inconsistent with reality.” He cited news reports of several incidents of violence at board meetings.

“Those who argues that school board meetings across America are not more dangerous and more violent than in the past are ignoring reality,” Durbin said. “Free speech does not involve threats and violence.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., cited reports of violent incidents against school officials in several states.

“It is true,” Booker said of rising violence. “You are literally saying as the leader of the highest law enforcement organization in the land, that you protect spirited debate.”

More: Merrick Garland asks FBI to address threats against school boards over COVID-19 restrictions, masks, racial debates

A few days before Garland issued the memo, the National School Boards Association had sent a letter to President Joe Biden pleading for “immediate assistance” from federal agencies such as the Justice Department and FBI to deal with a rise in violence.

“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,” said the letter from the association’s president and interim executive director.

The letter was immediately met with backlash from critics who accused the association of trying to silence parents and conservatives. Parents Defending Education, a right-leaning grassroots organization that seeks to end “indoctrination” and “radicalism” in classrooms, said the letter amounted to a “smear campaign against parents nationwide.” 

Through public records requests, Parents Defending Education later found that the association’s board wasn’t consulted before the letter was sent out, prompting the association to issue an apology to its members.

Garland told senators he wrote his memo independent of the association’s letter and didn’t rely on the specific language in it.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked whether someone threatening to punch someone in the nose was a federal offense and Garland said it wasn’t.

“Did you consider the chilling effect that this sort of threat of federal prosecution would have on parents’ exercise of their constitutional rights to be involved in their children’s education?” Cornyn said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said his staff investigated the incidents mentioned in the letter from the school boards and found no death threats.

“I choose here to reiterate my concern that not every outburst or expression of concern by neighbors among neighbors at their local school board warrants a federal investigation,” Lee said. “It certainly doesn’t warrant the involvement of 94 U.S. attorneys in a way that threatens, intimidates and tends inevitably to chill First Amendment activity.”

Garland said vigorous debate is protected. But he said threats are rising against school boards, election officials and members of Congress.

“I wanted the memorandum to assure people that we recognize the rights of spirited debate,” Garland said. “I don’t believe it’s reasonable to read this memorandum as chilling anyone’s rights about the threats of violence and it expressly recognizes the constitutional right to make arguments about your children’s education.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Merrick Garland defends school memo at Senate hearing against GOP criticism, call for resignation

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