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In 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing the FBI to address violent threats against school board members.
The memo never called concerned parents "domestic terrorists," and maintained that "spirited debate" surrounding school policy is protected by the U.S. Constitution. A lawsuit against Garland also found that parents’ rights had not been violated.
On "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., echoed a popular talking point about the Justice Department targeting concerned parents at school board meetings.
Speaking to host Shannon Bream, the presidential candidate accused the Justice Department of anti-conservative bias. "Think about parents who show up at school board meetings. By this DOJ, they’re called domestic terrorists," he said June 18, using the abbreviation for the Justice Department.
Scott reiterated the claim on social media and on Fox News’ "Hannity" show June 20.
He’s hardly the first politician to make this claim. In recent months, we’ve fact-checked statements on this topic made by several public officials, including U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., and U.S. Rep Steve Chabot, R-Ohio. We have found no evidence that the Justice Department is labeling parents who speak out at school board meetings as domestic terrorists.
The false narrative surrounding the Justice Department’s targeting of parents originated in October 2021, after Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo to the FBI and federal prosecutors. Garland was responding to a letter sent by the National School Boards Association in September 2021, which urged the federal government to act on threats against members of local school boards.
The association’s letter said public school officials nationwide had faced violent threats in recent months, mostly over coronavirus safety measures and false claims that schools were teaching critical race theory. The letter detailed instances of cyberbullying, malicious letters and disorderly conduct during school board meetings, likening them to acts of domestic terrorism.
"As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes," read the school board association’s letter.
When Garland responded several days later, he acknowledged a "disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence" against school officials. He directed the FBI to meet with leaders at all levels of government to "facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff."
The memo addressed only criminal conduct; Garland explicitly noted that "spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution." The memo neither included the word "terrorism," nor did it label parents "domestic terrorists."
Still, Garland’s response sparked concerns about the suppression of parents’ First Amendment rights. House Republicans questioned Garland about the characterization of parents as ‘domestic terrorists’ in a Justice Department oversight hearing in October 2021.
Garland defended parents’ rights to exercise their freedom of speech.
"I do not believe that parents who testify, speak, argue with, complain about school boards and schools should be classified as domestic terrorists or any kind of criminals," he said. "Parents have been complaining about the education of their children and about school boards since there were such things as school boards and public education. This is totally protected by the First Amendment. I take your point that true threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment. Those are the things we’re worried about here."
And in September 2022, a Trump-nominated federal judge struck down a lawsuit against Garland that alleged a stifling of parents’ First Amendment rights. In the ruling, Judge Dabney Friedrich wrote that "the Attorney General’s memorandum does not apply to the plaintiffs’ activities, and even if it did, the policy does not label anyone a domestic terrorist, as the plaintiffs suggest … Nor does it create a reputational association."
PolitiFact reached out to the Justice Department and verified that there have been no further developments on the case since our last report in March. We also contacted Scott’s spokesperson but received no reply.
Scott said, "Think about parents who show up at school board meetings. By this DOJ, they’re called domestic terrorists."
This claim is inaccurate. In 2021, Garland directed the FBI to address the rise in criminal conduct against school board members and develop protocol in partnership with local leaders in order to handle threats. The memo did not use "domestic terrorist" to describe parents at school board meetings and noted that "spirited debate" is protected by the Constitution. A Trump-appointed judge also ruled that Garland did not apply this label to parents.
We rate this statement False.
Office of the Attorney General, "Partnership Among Federal, State, Local, Tribal and Territorial Law Enforcement to Address Threats Against School Administrators, Board Members, Teachers, and Staff," accessed June 19, 2023.
National School Boards Association, "Federal Assistance to Stop Threats and Acts of Violence Against Public Schoolchildren, Public School Board Members, and Other Public School District Officials and Educators," accessed June 19, 2023.
PolitiFact, "At CPAC 2023, Florida congresswoman repeats false claim about DOJ labeling parents ‘terrorists,’" accessed June 19, 2023.
PolitiFact, "FBI, DOJ tagged threats against school officials, not parents for attending school board meetings," accessed June 19, 2023.
PolitiFact, "No, the federal government isn’t using the Patriot Act to treat parents like domestic terrorists," accessed June 19, 2023.
FactCheck.org, "Attorney General Never Called Concerned Parents ‘Domestic Terrorists,’" accessed June 19, 2023.
Tim Scott, Tweet, accessed June 20, 2023.
Email interview, DOJ spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle, June 20, 2023.
C-SPAN, "Justice Department Oversight Hearing," accessed June 20, 2023.
U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich, "Saline Parents v. Merrick B. Garland," accessed June 20, 2023.
The New York Times, "Critical Race Theory: A Brief History", accessed June 21, 2023.
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