WASHINGTON, D.C. – Tuesday, January 18, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) along with nine of their Senate colleagues expanded their ongoing probe into the federal government’s policing of school board meetings to include the Department of Education. The broadening inquiry follows revelations of emails between National School Board Association (NSBA) officials that suggest a controversial association letter to President Biden was initiated by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
The NSBA’s September 29, 2021, letter to Biden called on the government to consider using the PATRIOT Act and other anti-terrorism authorities against concerned parents at school board meetings. Days later, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo mobilizing federal law enforcement to track parents who express opposition at school board meetings. Though the NSBA has since disavowed the letter, the Department’s guidance remains unchanged.
Recently released emails suggest the NSBA’s letter was prompted by a request from Secretary Cardona. In separate letters to the respective agencies, the committee lawmakers are seeking details on any coordination between and within the Education Department and Justice Department regarding the NSBA letter and other efforts to crack down on dissent among parents at school board meetings.
January 18, 2022
VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION
The Honorable Merrick B. Garland
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20530
Dear Attorney General Garland:
We recently learned that Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona may have requested that the National School Boards Association (NSBA) send its September 29, 2021 letter to President Biden. This is the letter that compared concerned parents to domestic terrorists. The letter was the proximate cause of your October 4, 2021 memorandum directing the FBI and the various U.S. Attorneys to focus on harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence directed at school officials. We first wrote to you about this issue on October 7, 2021 stating that you should make clear to the American people that it is not the role of the federal government to silence those who question local school boards, and then we followed up on that letter on December 6, 2021 to ask why, inexplicably, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division had gotten involved in monitoring local school-board meetings.
The attached email thread, which was recently released by the group Parents Defending Education, appears to show two NSBA officials discussing whether NSBA’s emergency procedures for bypassing board approval of official correspondence were followed before sending its September 29 letter to President Biden. In denying that such procedures were followed, one of the officials wrote,
At the time, no, I didn’t think the letter fell under an emergency situation, it wasn’t characterized that way when Chip told the officers he was writing a letter to provide information to the White House, from a request by Secretary Cardona.
We now have reason to believe personnel at the NSBA coordinated its September 29 letter with, or acted at the behest of, the sitting Secretary of Education, as well as White House personnel—in a letter that asks for the PATRIOT Act to be used against American parents.
We are concerned about the prospect of the Secretary of Education requesting that a trade association write a letter to the President of the United States so that you, the Attorney General, might have the requisite cover to deploy federal law enforcement in such a questionable manner. We have the following questions for you regarding this development:
- When did you first learn about Secretary Cardona’s request that the NSBA write its September 29 letter to President Biden? What were the circumstances under which you first learned about Secretary Cardona’s request that the NSBA write its September 29 letter to President Biden?
- Before issuing your October 4 memorandum, did you or anyone else have any communication with Secretary Cardona or anyone else at the Department of Education about the matters at issue in the NSBA’s September 29 letter? What was the nature and substance of such communication(s)?
- Before issuing your October 4 memorandum, did you or anyone else at the Department of Justice have any communication with Secretary Cardona or anyone else at the Department of Education about the matters at issue in your October 4 memorandum? What was the nature and substance of such communication(s)?
- After issuing your October 4 memorandum, did you or anyone else at the Department of Justice have any communication with Secretary Cardona or anyone at the Department of Education about the matters at issue in your October 4 memorandum? What was the nature and substance of such communication(s)?
- At a January 11, 2022 hearing, National Security Division Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen indicated that there have been no known cases of domestic terrorism associated with local school-board meetings. If that is the case, why have you involved the National Security Division in administering the October 4 memorandum?
- If there are no known cases of domestic terrorism associated with local school-board meetings, why is the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI administering a threat tag entitled EDUOFFICIALS? Who at the Department of Justice tasked the Counterterrorism Division to do so?
- How many individuals are being tracked under the threat tag EDUOFFICIALS?
- Please provide copies of all records and emails in your possession reflecting or relating to Secretary Cardona’s request that the NSBA write its September 29 letter to President Biden.
Furthermore, we are in receipt of the Department of Justice’s one-page response to our letters to you of October 7, 2021 and December 6, 2021, which both concerned the Department’s involvement in local school matters. We think that response, dated December 22, 2021 and signed by Acting Assistant Attorney General Peter S. Hyun, is incomplete. It points to statements from your October 4 memorandum discussing how spirited debate is protected by the First Amendment and that it is the Department of Justice’s job to ensure the safety of all Americans, but frankly those issues were not the focus of our two letters to you on this matter. Rather, we asked you to withdraw your October 4 memorandum because of the chilling effect it has on the speech of American parents. By involving the National Security Division and the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI in local matters, you have created widespread fear that the national security apparatus of the United States is keeping tabs on them.
Please respond no later than Monday, February 7, 2022. You may contact John Schoenecker on Ranking Member Grassley’s staff at (202) 224-5225 with any questions you may have about this letter and its requests.