Conservative media falsely claim activist parents will be labeled “domestic terrorists”

The National School Boards Association asked for help handling threats to board members, and right-wing media spun the request into a panic

chyron reads "Biden weaponizing DOJ against American moms & dads"

Right-wing media have fumed over a misleading claim that conservative parents will be labeled and prosecuted as “domestic terrorists” after the National School Boards Association asked the federal government to investigate threats against board members over COVID-19 policies and school curricula. After a month-long campaign against the NSBA from right-wing media, the association has now apologized for the letter. 

These claims are the latest stage in two overlapping right-wing fights: one against COVID-19 safety guidelines in schools, and another attacking anti-racist teachings that conservatives have incorrectly labeled “critical race theory.” Both have spurred some parents to criticize — and sometimes even threaten — school board members. 

Republican politicians including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) have promoted these narratives on Fox News and other platforms, falsely arguing that the federal government is persecuting conservatives for their ideology. 

On September 29, the NSBA sent a letter to the Biden administration asking for help from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security and other law enforcement in dealing with threats of violence against school board members nationwide. 

In the letter, the association said that as the rates of these threats had increased, “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” The letter asked the federal government to “examine appropriate enforceable actions against these crimes and acts of violence” under a variety of anti-hate crime and anti-terrorism legislation, including the post-9/11 Patriot Act. 

The letter did not explicitly ask the FBI or any other federal entity to label angry parents as domestic terrorists. It did, however, detail explicit attacks, threats, and disruptions to school boards, teachers, and school personnel. These include someone shouting a Nazi chant at a school board meeting in Michigan, injuries and arrests at meetings, and direct threats over COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

On October 4, the Justice Department released a memo stating that Attorney General Merrick Garland would meet with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement to discuss how to address the alleged threats against school boards. This memo did not use the phrase domestic terrorism. 

Right-wing media outlets and personalities falsely conflated the two letters and suggested that parents would be labeled domestic terrorists. Some, like Fox News’ Dagen McDowell, went as far as to say that the federal government was planning to “sic the FBI and Department of Justice” on anti-CRT parents. The NSBA seemingly capitulated to the bad-faith campaign Monday, citing, in part, the “extensive media and other attention” to say it will conduct a review of “not only the proceedings leading to the letter, but also other related concerns.” Following the group's announcement, anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo tweeted:

Right-wing media focused the narrative around the misleading claim that the DOJ was going to label parents who oppose critical race theory and COVID-19 safety precautions as “domestic terrorists”:

  • Christopher Rufo claimed on Mark Levin's radio show that the federal government is using the Patriot Act to prosecute anti-CRT parents as domestic terrorists: “They're actually being very clear with their intentions. They said we want to now prosecute school board dissent as domestic terrorism using the Patriot Act. But this is a brazen, unconstitutional, and frankly outrageous abuse.”
  • The Five co-host Dagen McDowell suggested the letter and the DOJ were attempting to clamp down on anti-CRT sentiment: “Questioning critical race theory, parents across the country, you got called a racist. That didn't shut them up. That didn't keep them at home. And they kept going to school board meetings. So now you need to call them domestic terrorists and sic the FBI and Department of Justice on them.”
  • Fox host Sean Hannity said the “weaponization of the DOJ” was meant to “criminalize parenting because [parents] complain about what’s being taught in schools or COVID mandates.” Guest Mark Levin said the use of the FBI can be justified only by widespread violence and claimed that with these anti-CRT parents, “there is no pattern of widespread violence.”
  • Chyrons on the October 21 edition of Fox News Primetime read “Biden weaponizing DOJ against American moms & dads,” “Biden Justice Dept targets concerned parents,” and “Biden admin targets its political enemies.
“Biden weaponizing DOJ against Americans”

Citation From October 21, 2021, edition of Fox News Primetime Tonight

  • Conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza claimed the U.S. government is ignoring external threats in favor of attacking parents during his appearance on the October 10 broadcast of The Ingraham Angle: “It's almost as if the national security state, driven by the intelligence agencies, is turning its sights away from Islamic terrorism, threats on the international scene, advances by China and technology and so on and now turning its sites inward in which domestic political opponents, dissenters, parents, dads and moms, who are trying to defend ultimately their children's welfare, they are being demonized as domestic terrorists. It's pathetic.”
  • One America News Network’s Kara McKinney claimed parents standing up to CRT and “pedophiliac content” will have the “Biden's department of injustice” enforce the Patriot Act against them. 
  • Breitbart News claimed that the NSBA had asked for Biden’s help dealing with “anti-CRT ‘domestic terrorist’ parents.” 
  • The Daily Wire published a story about a new Arizona school board association formed by conservatives in response to the NSBA’s letter. The story inaccurately implied that the Biden administration had “heeded” the letter by actively investigating parents. 
  • The New York Post insinuated that the White House and the NSBA had collaborated on the association’s letter and falsely claimed that “Garland sicced” the FBI on parents. 

Right-wing media also attacked Garland and the DOJ and FBI over Garland’s response to the NSBA, arguing that the department was persecuting conservatives and comparing the U.S. government to authoritarian regimes, including Nazi Germany: 

  • Breitbart News suggested that Garland was acting out of self-interest, implying that he was trying to help his son-in-law’s company, Panorama Education, which sells surveys to school districts and promotes anti-racist teaching practices. The article claimed Panorama promotes the tenets of critical race theory, though the theory is not specifically mentioned on Panorama’s website.
  • On Fox and Friends, Rachel Campos-Duffy and other Fox hosts speculated that Garland’s move to mobilize law enforcement to investigate threats against school boards could be due to the personal interests of his son. Campos-Duffy said of the son-in-law’s company: “Not only are they poisoning our children's minds with this ideology. It turns out this is a Trojan horse for data mining, which is a huge invasion of privacy. This is a scandal of massive proportions. We need to get to the bottom of it."
Video file

Citation From October 22, 2021, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends

  • Breitbart News claimed that the Biden administration is using the “FBI Gestapo” to “terrorize parents opposed to critical race theory.”
  • On The Mark Levin Show, Levin compared the FBI to the secret police of East Germany: “So in other words, if any school board member, any educational bureaucrat, any teacher, anybody, any staff member thinks they're being quote-unquote ‘threatened,’ there's going to be a hotline. And so they'll send the FBI out to interview the parents. They'll send the FBI out. You know what this reminds me of? The East German Stasi.” 
  • National Review claimed that the Department of Justice is trying to persecute conservatives: “Garland’s memo is an attempt to intimidate opponents and silence opposition. It is exactly the opposite of what the Justice Department should be doing.”
  • Fox News Primetime host Will Cain furthered the claim that Garland has a conflict of interest: “Now [Garland is] playing a role in attempting to shut down anyone who has a problem with that curriculum finding its way into schools. It does seem at the very least like a conflict of interest.”
  • In an opinion for The Wall Street Journal, former Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) wrote that “the Biden administration is abusing federal laws and agencies as instruments of political repression” against “parents seeking a voice in their children’s education.”