State leaders react to Garland memo directing FBI to investigate school board protests

Attorney General Merrick Garland is sworn in to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (Tasos Katopodis/Pool via AP)

RALEIGH — Various elected officials in North Carolina are reacting to news that the Biden administration’s Department of Justice will be directing the FBI to investigate protests at school boards around the country.

On Oct. 4, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum that stated he was directing the FBI to investigate “threats” to school boards and education personnel in every state. The memorandum seems to target parents who for months have been protesting at school board meetings over mask mandates, indoctrination and Critical Race Theory.

In the days following his memorandum, Garland has been accused of having a conflict of interest after it was revealed his daughter is married to the co-founder of Panorama, a company that sells Social and Emotional Learning and Critical Race Theory materials.

In a written statement to North State Journal, North Carolina’s top education official reacted to Garland’s memorandum, calling it “disturbing.”

“I found Attorney General Garland’s memo this week very disturbing,” state Superintendent Catherine Truitt wrote. “No matter the cause one is fighting for, as a society we should always act with civility and follow the law.”

Truitt went on to mention the recent letter sent by the National School Board Association (NSBA) to the Biden administration that appears to have prompted Garland’s memorandum.

“As an elected official, I will always call for good behavior no matter if it is during a march downtown or at a local school board meeting,” wrote Truitt. “But a recent letter to President Biden from the National School Boards Association suggests that parents who choose to speak out less civilly than perhaps some would like should be labeled as ‘domestic terrorists,’ that their actions are tantamount to ‘hate crimes,’ and that they could be investigated by the FBI as such.”

Truitt added that the “DOJ appears to concur,” noting the DOJ agreed to establish a task force to address “intimidation and harassment.”

“If individuals commit actual crimes, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, Truitt wrote. “However, when our federal justice system opts to kill a fly with a hammer, one starts to question the true intentions of those that are supposed to protect us.”

“This is federal overreach for certain,” wrote Truitt. “The Justice Department should spend as much muscle investigating the uptick in violence and gun-related attacks around our country as they do on concerned parents who are simply frustrated about their children’s public education experience at the local level. Vehement protests are not hate crimes and loud rhetoric does not a terrorist make.”

Gov. Roy Cooper did not respond for a request for comment on Garland’s action. In July, when directly asked, Cooper refused to take a position on Critical Race Theory, the topic of many heated school board protests in North Carolina and across the country. He also vetoed a bill that would have combatted discrimination, bias and ideologies like Critical Race Theory in North Carolina K-12 classrooms.

Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) took to Facebook to express his concern about Garland’s intent to investigate parents speaking out at school board meetings.

“When rioters set fire to buildings, looted stores, and laid siege to a federal courthouse last summer, we were told over and over that the ‘mostly peaceful protests’ were a necessary racial reckoning and actually good for public health,” Berger wrote in an Oct. 6 Facebook post. “When parents show up at school board meetings in actual, real peaceful protests over concerns about policies impacting their own children, the media and the teachers’ unions demand the FBI start investigating.

“Of course there are a few people who take things too far. There always are, and those people should face consequences,” wrote Berger. “But the double standard here — defending rioters destroying entire city blocks as ‘mostly peaceful’ while branding moms upset about school curriculum as some sort of national threat — is astonishing and frightening. No wonder trust in media and institutions is at an all-time low.”

Berger’s Facebook post included a link to a NY Post article, titled “Parents take a stand against FBI crackdown on CRT opponents.”

General Assembly House K-12 Education chair state Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) questioned Garland’s actions on Twitter. He also dropped a reference to President Biden dismissing the harassment of U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) by activists who accosted her into a bathroom, on a plane trip, and at her home.

“Rioters that destroy property walk free, elected folks are followed into bathrooms by radicals and we are told that’s just the process but parents deeply concerned about school board mandates and other issues they disagree with and speaking out about it get threat of FBI. Wow,” tweeted Torbett.

Mark Robinson, the state’s first black lieutenant governor, issued a one-page statement attacking Garland’s memorandum on Facebook. The posts calls out anyone who “crosses the line” with violent threats but also said Garland was “trying to silence parents” and their “right to free speech.”

“We must not allow the federal government to set a precedence of pushing parents out from having a say in their children’s education,” Robinson said in conclusion.

North State Journal also reached out to North Carolina Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, who appeared to praise Garland’s move.

“Keeping students, teachers, staff, and school board members safe so they can focus on education is absolutely critical. NC is seeing far too much violence in schools — we must do everything we can to protect our classrooms,” Stein said in an emailed statement.

Republican attorney generals from states such as Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri and Nebraska have issued statements calling Garland’s memo a federal overreach and that they would protect the First Amendment rights of parents.

“Biden’s Department of Justice is weaponizing its resources against parents who dare to advocate for their children,” said Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt in a press statement. “This dangerous federal overreach imposes a chilling effect on free speech by criminalizing dissent.”

Neither Garland’s memorandum nor the Department of Justice’s press release that included Garland’s order gave any details of the purported threats nor details about alleged training the FBI will be doing with state-level education officials.

About A.P. Dillon 1248 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_