U.S. Justice Dept defends efforts to step up monitoring threats to school boards


WASHINGTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco on Tuesday defended a new initiative to combat a rise in threats and harassment targeting public school boards and teachers across the country, after Republican lawmakers accused the Justice Department of trying to stifle parents' free speech.

In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Monaco told lawmakers that the Justice Department is not trying to censor speech, but merely coordinate with state and local law enforcement to ensure "there is an awareness of how to report threats that may occur and to ensure that there's an open line of communication to address threats."

On Monday night, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a new memo directing the FBI and federal prosecutors to meet with local and state police within 30 days to discuss strategies for addressing the "disturbing trend" of threats facing America's public educators.

"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.

The memo comes as school boards across the country, including in nearby Loudoun County, Virginia, have seen a rise in protests and violent rhetoric fueled by right-wing media over claims that public schools are indoctrinating children into thinking America is a racist country through the teaching of a doctrine known as critical race theory.

Critics say there is no evidence to suggest that critical race theory is being taught in most, if any, public schools, but the topic has led to waves of protests and often raucous school board meetings.

At the same time, schools have also been caught in the cross-hairs of an ongoing national debate over whether students should be required to wear masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley blasted the memo on Tuesday, comparing it to the "McCarthy era," a reference to the controversial practices of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, who stoked Cold War era fears in the 1950s by alleging that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government, military and film industry.

"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... is that in and of itself harassment and intimidation?" he asked.

"Spirited debate is welcome," Monaco said, adding that the memo makes it clear that the department is only focused on addressing situations that could turn violent.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch Editing by Bill Berkrot

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Sarah N. Lynch is the lead reporter for Reuters covering the U.S. Justice Department out of Washington, D.C. During her time on the beat, she has covered everything from the Mueller report and the use of federal agents to quell protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons and the department's prosecutions following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.