A former Republican lawmaker and principal author of the Patriot Act says the Biden administration’s targeting of parents protesting COVID-19 restrictions and race-based curriculum during school board meetings confirms his worst fears about the abuse of federal laws “as instruments of political repression.”
Former Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, who served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, says he warned of potential abuse of the Patriot Act when drafting the legislation nearly two decades ago. Looking back now, Mr. Sensenbrenner says he couldn’t have imagined it would be used to target citizens’ rights to freedom of expression.
“When debating the Patriot Act and other federal anti-terrorism laws, nobody in either chamber of Congress could have imagined these laws would be turned against concerned parents at local school board meetings,” the former Republican congressman wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal.
“Yet on Oct. 4, Mr. Garland issued the memorandum that will live in infamy,” Mr. Sensenbrenner wrote, in reference to a memo Attorney General Merrick Garland circulated in early October that has since drawn the ire of many Republicans.
The controversy at issue stems from a letter the National School Boards Association (NSBA) wrote to President Biden in late September. The letter specifically cited the Patriot Act, among other legal measures, as a justification for requesting “federal assistance to stop threats” being posed against public school officials by concerned parents protesting at school board meetings.
In response, Mr. Garland issued his memorandum citing a “disturbing spike” in “threats of violence” against school officials, and directed federal law enforcement officials to discuss strategies “for addressing threats against” local school boards and administrators, and to “open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response.”
Mr. Garland’s memo received swift pushback from GOP lawmakers, who said the call to action represented a concerning overreach against U.S. citizens exercising free speech.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee responded with their own letter to Mr. Garland, telling the attorney general that they are concerned about the “appearance” of the Justice Department “policing the speech of citizens and concerned parents.”
“We urge you to make very clear to the American public that the Department of Justice will not interfere with the rights of parents to come before school boards and speak with educators about their concerns, whether regarding coronavirus-related measures, the teaching of critical race theory in schools, sexually explicit books in schools, or any other topic,” the senators wrote.
They went on to assert that it is inappropriate to use the Patriot Act or any other federal powers “to quash those who question local school boards.”
“Unless it is immediately withdrawn, the memorandum will chill free speech, undermine civil liberties, erode public confidence in federal law enforcement, divert resources from actual terrorist threats, and weaken congressional support for key anti-terrorism laws,” he wrote. “All of these developments would make Americans less free, less secure, and less safe.”
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