Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) said that responding to threats and violence against school board officials is an effort to 'chill' free speech.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) is up in arms after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Monday that the FBI will partner with local law enforcement to respond to harassment and violence against school board officials and teachers across the country.
In his memo announcing the effort, Garland said, "In recent months, there has been 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." Those engaging in the violence are often angry about mask mandates in schools and the supposed teaching of what they call "critical race theory."
Hawley went on an extended rant about Garland's announcement at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday with Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, telling her that the effort to crack down on the harassment and intimidation of school officials is intended to "chill" free speech.
"Is parents waiting sometimes for hours to speak at a local school board meeting to express concerns about critical race theory or the masking of their students, particularly young children, is that in and of itself, is that harassment and intimidation?" Hawley asked Monaco, who was there to testify about the Violence Against Women Act.
Hawley continued to insist that the memo was about blocking parents from expressing opinions: "If this isn't a deliberate attempt to chill parents from showing up at school board meetings, for their elected school board meetings, I don't know what is."
Monaco responded, "Senator, I have to respectfully disagree" as Hawley talked over her. "The attorney general's memorandum made quite clear that violence is not appropriate. Spirited public debate on a whole range of issues is absolutely what this country is all about —" Hawley interrupted again, demanding, "Then why is it being investigated by the FBI?"
Monaco responded, "It is not. When and if any situation turns to violence, then that is the appropriate role of law enforcement, to address it."
The memo states that the Department of Justice wants the FBI to partner with local law enforcement to prevent harassment and violence:"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."
School board officials and teachers have faced threats and have even been attacked by parents, including in Hawley's own state of Missouri.
In September, scuffles broke out after a meeting in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, at which the school board voted unanimously in favor of a mask mandate, with at least one parent led away in handcuffs.
Also in September, NBC News reported that three men, one of whom was carrying zip ties, threatened to make a citizen's arrest of a principal at an elementary school in Tucson, Arizona. The men were angry that the principal was quarantining a classroom because of possible exposure to COVID-19.
The harassment and violence is also taking place at school board officials' homes.
Video recorded in Sarasota, Florida, shows protesters with American and Gadsden flags gathered outside the home of Shirley Brown, a member of the Sarasota School Board, with one saying through a bullhorn, "We see you in there, Shirley. We want you to come out for a redress of grievances. This is the line we will die on. Shirley, come out. We have some questions and we have demands that need to be met."
Hawley has criticized protesters he disagrees with for showing up at people's homes.
In July 2020, he called for a civil rights probe of a prosecutor in St. Louis who had seized the guns of Mark and Patricia McCloskey. The couple had aimed their guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who were demonstrating in their neighborhood. Hawley wrote of their reaction to the demonstrators, "There is no question under Missouri law that the McCloskeys had the right to own and use their firearms to protect themselves from threatened violence, and that any criminal prosecution for these actions is legally unsound."
Two days before the certification of the results of the 2020 presidential election in the Electoral College, on Jan. 4, demonstrators showed up at Hawley's own Virginia home to demand that he vote to certify them after he'd said he wouldn't.
In response, Hawley tweeted, "Tonight while I was in Missouri, Antifa scumbags came to our place in DC and threatened my wife and newborn daughter. They screamed threats, vandalized, and tried to pound open our door. Let me be clear: My family & I will not be intimidated by leftwing violence."
According to the Washington Post, police in Vienna, Virginia, said the protesters were peaceful, did not pound on doors, and did not vandalize Hawley's house. Because the police did not file any charges, Hawley's wife filed a criminal complaint against one of the protesters; a judge dismissed the case in August.
During the exchange with Hawley before the Judiciary Committee, Monaco said that the Justice Department is ensuring "that state and local law enforcement has an open line of communication to report threats."
Later during the hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), another member of the committee, said, "It's alway surprising to me that the lawyers on this committee don't seem to understand the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights and people who are threatening violence and in fact who engage in assaults on people."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.