The school board showdowns.

Merrick Garland directed the FBI to work with local law enforcement. What does it mean?
Isaac Saul Oct 12, 2021

I'm Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, non-partisan politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then my take.

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Merrick Garland directed the FBI to work with local law enforcement. What does it mean? Plus, a question about wealth disparity.

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo: Senate Democrats
Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo: Wikicommons / Senate Democrats

Reader feedback.

Last week, I wrote that "80 million Americans voted for" Biden's agenda — the same agenda now being held up by Sens. Sinema and Manchin. Many readers who wrote in objected to this framing: Some pointed to exit polling showing many of those 80 million voters had cast a ballot against Trump, not for Biden. Others noted that Biden wiped the floor with Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose agenda was more akin to what Democrats are trying to pass now. Some argued that Biden's reconciliation bill is not polling well while many voters can't even say what's in it.

All of you made great points. If I could re-write that sentence, I would. It was meant as a bit of a rhetorical flourish but became far more literal than I intended. I do not think 80 million Americans voted for Biden's agenda. 80 million Americans voted for him for a variety of different reasons, not least among them being opposition to Trump. Obviously, many millions of those Americans want to see the reconciliation and infrastructure bills pass, too, but not all of them.


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Quick hits.

  1. A U.S. Navy engineer and his wife have been arrested for allegedly attempting to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign government. (The charges)
  2. A Texas federal appeals court reinstated the Texas abortion ban after it was struck down by a judge. (The reversal)
  3. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) formally announced his plan to run for governor in 2022. (The announcement)
  4. U.S. officials met with the Taliban in Doha for the first formal talks since the withdrawal from Afghanistan. (The meeting)
  5. World leaders from more than 130 countries reached a landmark deal on a minimum global corporate tax rate of 15 percent. (The agreement)

Today's topic.

The Justice Department. And more specifically, Attorney General Merrick Garland. Last week, Garland said he would be deploying federal officials across the country to address instances where parents have threatened or harassed educators over issues like mask mandates, critical race theory education and other hot-button topics that are dominating classrooms and school board meetings. The move comes after the National School Boards Association (NSBA), a group representing school board members across the United States, sent a plea to Garland for help, citing a spike in threats and acts of violence against members of school boards.

Over the next 30 days, the Justice Department is going to hold sessions with local law enforcement and devise a plan to respond to the “the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel."

“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views,” Garland wrote in a memo to the FBI. “Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values. Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”

In the NSBA's letter to Garland, more than 20 instances of threats, harassment, disruption, and acts of intimidation were documented, including an Illinois man who allegedly struck a teacher during a school board meeting, a Michigan man who performed a nazi salute to protest mask mandates, and a letter mailed to an Ohio school board member that said “We are coming after you... You are forcing them to wear masks — for no reason in this world other than control. And for that you will pay dearly.”

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions to the memo from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

The right says Garland is overstepping his authority and threatening parents.

In The New York Post, Miranda Devine said everyone thought Garland was a moderate, but he turns out to be a "radical ideologue hellbent on targeting President Biden’s political foes."

"Garland’s ominous memo last week directing the FBI to investigate parents as domestic terror threats was a big mistake," she wrote. "He cited no evidence for what he claims is a 'disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence' against school boards. His memo was a shocking abuse of his office on behalf of left-wing activists who have been using schools as brainwashing factories for future social justice warriors. It was designed to intimidate parents and stop them advocating for their children... The [NSBA] letter cited cases including one man arrested in Illinois for 'aggravated battery and disorderly conduct' during a school board meeting, someone in Michigan who 'yelled a Nazi salute in protest to masking requirements,' some trespassing, shouting and prank calls.

"Of course, violence or threats are always wrong, but in the few isolated instances of criminal behavior cited, local law enforcement effectively did their job. There is no reason to deploy the heavy hand of federal law enforcement, other than to try to frighten parents into shutting up. In any case, the NSBA is not an organization that can be taken seriously. It is not impartial, but a left-wing activist outfit, which has even embraced someone accused of actual domestic terrorism, as Newsweek points out," Devine wrote. "In 2019, the NSBA invited as keynote speaker to its annual conference the former black militant Communist Angela Davis, who once was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List over her alleged involvement in the Black Panther murder of a judge... Parents have every right to tell school boards what their children should be taught and every right to be upset when they are ignored."

Gerard Baker said Merrick Garland has a list, and you're probably on it.

"Decent people everywhere acknowledge that violence is intolerable—whether perpetrated by Black Lives Matter agitators torching buildings, Trump supporters smashing federal property, or parents who throw projectiles at school board members," he wrote. "But the letter from the NSBA contained barely any evidence of actual violence. It cited mostly antisocial behavior and threats, and some of the offenses referenced—such as a parent making a mock Nazi salute to a school board—are, however offensive, constitutionally protected speech. And, as has been widely noted, when acts of violence occur, they can and have been dealt with by local or state law enforcement. There is no federal interest in any of these infractions.

"All this merely underscores what the real objective of the attorney general’s action was—and we don’t need to engage in speculation because it was recently spelled out to us by another leading member of President Biden’s party, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia," he wrote. "In a rare moment of honesty from a politician, Mr. McAuliffe made clear, in a television debate with Republican Glenn Youngkin, the Democrats’ conception of the role that parents should have in their children’s education: none whatever. 'I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.'"

In The National Review, Andrew McCarthy called it a "lawless threat" against parents.

"Garland well knows... that in the incitement context, the First Amendment protects speech unless it unambiguously calls for the use of force that the speaker clearly intends, under circumstances in which the likelihood of violence is real and imminent," McCarthy said. "Even actual 'threats of violence' are not actionable unless they meet this high threshold. A fortiori, the First Amendment fully protects speech evincing ‘efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.’ As long as such speech does not constitute a clear and imminent threat to do violence if the individual acts on his or her views, there is no incitement — and hence no law-enforcement interest to vindicate. And in particular, there is no federal law-enforcement interest to vindicate.

"There is no general federal police power. If I threaten to punch my local school-board president in the nose, there is a possibility — depending on how serious and imminent the threat appears — that I have violated state law, but there is no possibility whatsoever that the matter is a concern of the Justice Department," he added. "Even if I follow through on the threat, I have still not violated the laws of the United States."


What the left is saying.

The left says we need to protect educators and argues that this is a huge overreaction to Garland's memo.

In The Washington Post, Karen Attiah cited Senate Republican Josh Hawley (R-MO), who called Garland's letter a "dangerous" directive that amounted to a McCarthyist effort to silence parents.

"Hawley’s Red Scare metaphor is useful to understanding what is happening across the country, only he has it backward. As a Texan, I can say that he completely misses what is happening to educators in states such as mine," she said. "In today’s chapter of this old story, irrational anxiety over anything resembling diversity, inclusion and historical accuracy on race in the United States has individuals and groups in Texas creating a climate of fear, intimidation and surveillance in education. One group emailed Dallas teachers encouraging them to report peers for lessons in critical race theory and 'predatory gender fluidity.' Educators have told me their fears about their names appearing on certain local Facebook groups of parents — one in particular wondered whether it had been a mistake to move to Texas to teach. Joseph McCarthy would have been impressed by it all.

"It remains to be seen whether federal backup will help prevent school board members from quitting under the pressure," she added. "A Nevada school board member said this summer that the harassment got so bad he considered suicide — and decided to step down. In Wisconsin last month, a board member resigned after deciding his family’s safety was at risk — all because he voted in favor of mask mandates. But it’s hard to see what will change the real driver of these battles — a normalization of surveillance and intimidation of educators coming from the right. I’m glad the federal government is getting involved, but one can only hope that it’s not too late."

In The Daily Beast, Ruben Navarrette Jr. said "Merrick Garland isn't criminalizing parents, he's protecting schoolkids."

"The latest eruption in the overheated culture war over how public schools are run began with a cry for help from a national association tasked with looking out for school board members," Navarrette Jr. wrote. "And it ended with hyperventilating right-wingers crying about how Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department are supposedly targeting concerned citizens and 'criminalizing parenting.' In a memo released this week, Garland instructed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys to meet in the next 30 days with federal, state, and local enforcement agencies to discuss strategies to combat what the DOJ described in a press release as an 'increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation’s public schools.'

"That’s it. It was just a memo. Not exactly a sweeping and oppressive edict from King George III. No matter. The folks on the cultural right quickly responded with the modern-day equivalent of the Boston Tea Party. The activists insist that Garland—by unleashing federal agents and federal prosecutors—is treating them like domestic terrorists," Navarrette Jr. wrote. "This is just the sort of overreaching, hyperbolic language that people in both parties use these days. It is meant to attract attention, fuel fundraising, and rally the faithful. It used to be that just talk radio shock jocks lit these rhetorical fires to create buzz. Now everyone does it... The attorney general has nothing to explain or apologize for. So what if the nation’s top law enforcement officer wants to make a federal case out of protecting school board members—and other school personnel? If this is indeed a national trend, as it appears to be, then that’s an appropriate response.

Paul Waldman said "Republicans are siding with the angry mob."

"Republicans in Congress have seen the threat of mob violence, and they are going to do something about it," Waldman wrote. "They’re going to defend the mob, and make sure law enforcement doesn’t crack down too hard on it. That’s the clear message being sent from up and down the right — politicians, pundits, and conservative media — in response to a memorandum from the Department of Justice laying out an effort to address the rising tide of angry threats directed at school boards and education officials... Threats of violence against public officials are now simply part of the Republican repertoire. Even if most people who vote GOP would never threaten their local school principal, Republican politicians know that a number of their supporters would. And one level below that — the furious mob, screaming over a lie they’ve been told on Fox — is seen by those politicians not as a dangerous threat to society but as an instrument for them to regain power.

"So they’ll do what they can to protect that mob, condemn its targets (whatever they are), and find any excuse they can to portray themselves as the courageous and oppressed," he added. "The result is likely to be more mobs and more violence."


My take.

There are few things I loathe more than faux outrage. It's one of the things I call out most in this newsletter — from the left and the right, because they've both become so extraordinarily good at it. It is one of the primary poisons that drove me to create this newsletter in the first place. And this has faux outrage written all over it.

In the last week I've seen conservative pundits (and politicians) claim that parents were being labeled "domestic terrorists," that they were being "criminalized," and that FBI agents were being sent to "silence" them. None of this is true.

Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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