WASHINGTON, D.C. – In light of the disturbing revelation that the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division created a “threat tag” based on Attorney General Merrick Garland’s October 4 memorandum, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and every Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week sent a follow-up letter to AG Garland demanding that he finally withdraw that memo and make clear that the law enforcement arms of the federal government do not equate concerned parents with domestic terrorists.
In the letter, the senators wrote:
“Parents and other citizens who get impassioned at school-board meetings are not domestic terrorists. 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 demand follows a letter from the senators sent three days after Garland issued his controversial memo, calling on the attorney general to make it clear that parents will not be targeted for exercising their First Amendment rights. Garland failed to reassure parents either through a new announcement or in his testimony before the committee.
Co-signers of the letter include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), John Kennedy (R-La.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).
Read the full text of the letter here and below.
December 6, 2021
The Honorable Merrick B. Garland
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20530
Dear Attorney General Garland:
Are concerned parents domestic terrorists or not?
This letter follows up on our letter to you of October 7 in which we called on you to make clear to the nation’s parents and educators that it is not the job of the federal government to silence those who question local school boards. 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. By involving the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division in this matter, that is exactly what you have done.
Recently a whistleblower at the Department of Justice provided to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee a copy of an internal DOJ email containing “A Joint Message from Criminal Investigative Division & Counterterrorism Division.”1 That email stated that the FBI’s Counterterrorism and Criminal Divisions created the threat tag, “EDUOFFICIALS,” to track “instances of related threats” about school administrators, school board members, teachers, and staff.2 This followed your October 4 memorandum alleging a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools.”3 In that memo, you directed the FBI and the various United States Attorneys to hold meetings with “federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial leaders in each federal judicial district within 30 days” in order to “facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff….”4 And as you well know by now, you issued this directive in response to a September 29 letter from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) to President Biden, which compared impassioned parents to domestic terrorists.5 The NSBA has since apologized for its September 29 letter.6
You testified on October 27 to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary that your October 4 memorandum was only about violence and threats of violence, and you specifically said, “The Constitution protects spirited debate, and I don’t believe there’s anything in [that memorandum] that could be read to intimidate mothers and fathers.”7 You confirmed that parents are exercising their Constitutional rights when they speak before their local school boards and even get upset and yell what they really believe.8 You testified that it would be unreasonable to read your October 4 memorandum as chilling those rights. 9
However, it should be abundantly clear to you now that no matter what your claimed intention was at the time of issuing that memo, the subsequent reaction of American parents and the public shows it has had a clear chilling effect on them. Since you issued your October 4 memorandum, 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. Despite your testimony to the contrary, these parents have good reason to be concerned. The attached Joint Message from the FBI’s Criminal and Counterterrorism divisions 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. Speaking in public is a nerve-racking experience for most people. Undoubtedly many of them will now just skip it. When that happens, democracy is failing. Other parents will be even more nervous speaking their minds and will not be as clear as they would like to be when speaking. All of this is an outrageous tipping of the scales in the marketplace of ideas in favor of school officials, who just happen to be a major constituency of the political party that currently controls the White House and the Department of Justice.10 And you have now enlisted the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division as muscle in that marketplace of ideas.
No matter how you might rationalize this, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division should never have had anything to do with school-board meetings. Congress has received multiple whistleblower reports from within the Department of Justice about the DOJ and FBI processes that have taken place since you issued your October 4 memorandum. It is not just the public and Congress that are concerned about introducing national-security tools into local-government debates. It is also dedicated, career public servants—the very same people you said in your confirmation hearing that you would listen to when leading the Department.
Make no mistake about it—there are those who would be perfectly happy with the federal government, now including the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, scaring people out of criticizing local school boards. A big part of this problem, which you either do not understand or are complicit in, is that too many people nowadays equate ideas they do not like with violence. Many are effectively taught that anything or anybody that hurts their feelings with words or ideas can be sanctioned so as to effectively make those hurt feelings go away. That is the gist of NSBA’s September 29 letter to President Biden, which neither its state school-board-association members nor its own board of directors even approved. Read it again. Read the news stories in the footnotes of that letter and notice how many of the school-board meetings that the NSBA complained about did not actually involve any sort of serious criminal activity. When taken as a whole, that letter was not concerned about actual physical violence and true threats of violence as much as it was frustrated by people harshly criticizing school boards.11 It was a shameless request for the federal government to stop people from making them feel bad in school-board meetings. Its complaint about the group Turning Point USA “spreading misinformation that [school] boards are adopting critical race theory curriculum and working to maintain online learning by haphazardly attributing it to COVID-19”12 was particularly galling in this regard. By now involving the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division in this effort, even if you personally believe that division would never cross a line into silencing criticism of local governments, you have given life to the idea that dissidents are synonymous with terrorists. This is a common tactic of third-world dictatorships, but it should never be FBI practice.
Parents and other citizens who get impassioned at school-board meetings are not domestic terrorists. 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. Therefore, we call on you to work with us in coming to a resolution on this matter. 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. There is no other way to communicate this to the American people other than by unequivocally withdrawing your October 4 memorandum.