Blowback from DOJ's Assault on Parents' 1st Amendment Rights

The blowback from the Biden Justice Department's latest overreach has now reached the state level.   

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association tells Delaware Valley Journal it disavows a letter last week from the national school board group asking that parents protesting education policy be investigated as possible violent domestic terrorists, That letter resulted in swift action from Attorney General Merrick Garland — and a swift backlash from advocates of parental rights and opponents of federal interference in local law enforcement.

And it is not just local school boards that have a problem. As Bucks County DA Matthew Weintraub said:

When asked about whether it was appropriate for the Department of Justice to prosecute individuals in Bucks County school districts, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said, “Absolutely not. There’s no need for it. There’s no place for, it will have a chilling effect on our First Amendment right to free speech. I don’t want you to conflate what I’m saying though…if somebody is going to overtly threaten another person, whether it’s on the internet or live at a school board in anger, they will be held accountable. But if they’re merely expressing their anger or their displeasure at their quality of education or the manner in which that education is provided, they have a right to be heard. And I will steadfastly uphold that right under the First Amendment.”

Last week, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Attorney General Garland “concerned about the appearance of the Department of Justice policing the speech of citizens and concerned parents.” The letter details how the original National School Boards Association examples are not “terrorism” but valid exercises of the First Amendment.

For example, the NSBA letter references a school board meeting being disrupted in Florida and cites to a Sarasota Herald-Tribune article discussing how the Sarasota County School Board might change
its public comment protocol because of that disruption. That article describes how “[o]ver the past year, large crowds have shown up [at Sarasota school board meetings] to address items that are not always on the agenda, like critical race theory, masking in schools, or complaints over items in the curriculum” and that “boards throughout the state are examining their public comment protocols.”  Large numbers of
citizens expressing their concerns in an appropriate forum is not a matter for law enforcement, and it is even more difficult to imagine what role federal law enforcement would play in such a scenario.

In the very next example, the NSBA letter cites to a Board of Education meeting in Gwinnett County, Georgia being disrupted.  In that situation, the supposed disruption appears to have been participants refusing to wear masks while protesting the school district’s requirement that students wear masks in school.  This too does not appear to warrant criminal investigation, especially by the federal government. Rather, these actions look a lot like civil disobedience in protest of public policy, a tactic often embraced as virtuous by Democrats when it comes to policies they oppose. Not wearing a mask in a public place may or may not be a violation of a local law, but at most it is a petty offense wholly unworthy of the federal government’s attention and the sort of civil disobedience many Democrats would embrace if the politics of wearing masks were reversed.

The Senators conclude:

Parents who get upset about these topics, and others, are engaging in speech that is clearly protected under the First Amendment. We ask you to explain how any of this rises to the definition of criminal harassment. After a year of prolonged school closures, even well after it was clear that schools could safely reopen amidst COVID-19, parents are understandably asking questions and seeking accountability. . . Violence and true threats of violence should have no place in our civic discourse, but parents should absolutely be involved in public debates over what and how our public schools teach their children, even if those discussions get heated. When you were sworn in as the Attorney General, you took an oath to uphold our Constitution, and now your fundamental job is to protect the rights of all Americans. Perhaps the most basic and most important right every American has is the right to question our governments, from the heights of the Congress and the Presidency all the way down to the local school boards. That includes asking them some very tough questions and requesting changes to school policies. It is not appropriate to use the awesome powers of the federal government – including the PATRIOT Act, a statute designed to thwart international terrorism – to quash those who question local school boards. By even suggesting that possibility, important speech by American citizens will be chilled in school board meetings across this country.

The Biden Administration has chosen to chill the speech rights of parents at the bidding of the National School Boards Association. Local school boards, such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and Senate Judiciary Republicans should be commended for standing up to the Biden Department of Justice’s latest arguably unconstitutional overreach.