A federal judge appointed by Donald Trump dismissed a lawsuit against Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday, noting that a memo Garland issued in October 2021 “does not label anyone a domestic terrorist, as the plaintiffs suggest." The ruling puts the kibosh on a false talking point that Fox News had promoted more than 400 times since the memo’s release, according to a Media Matters review.
Last year, an alliance of conservative think tankers and activists, right-wing media figures, and Republican politicians sought partisan gain by stoking anger against school boards and educators. For months, they inundated the right-wing base with false and incendiary claims that children were supposedly being taught “critical race theory.” On Fox News, propagandists described this academic legal framework which examines the systemic impact of racism as a “civilization-ending poison” that “threatens to overturn the advances of human civilization over the last 500 years.”
The right-wing campaign against critical race theory had serious consequences, according to the National School Boards Association, a federation that represents local elected school board officials. The group issued a September 29, 2021, memo to President Joe Biden detailing “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials” in light of false information about critical race theory and mask requirements, which it termed “a form of domestic terrorism,” and asked for a Justice Department response. On October 4, 2021, Garland responded with a memo stating that the DOJ would implement policies “designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel” (emphasis added), and asking the FBI to convene interagency meetings to “facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”
Fox and others in the right-wing media responded to the memos by further inflaming their audiences, smearing the Justice Department’s effort to stop criminal threats against educators as an attack on conservatives.
“You have gone to school board meetings advocating for your children,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham told a guest on her October 4, 2021, show. “You have a right to do so. Now they want to label you a potential domestic terrorist. Unbelievable.”
Fox aired the falsehood that the Biden administration or the school boards group labeled protesting parents as “terrorists” or as engaging in “terrorism” at least 401 times since the DOJ issued its memo, according to a Media Matters review.
Fox & Friends First was most dedicated to the false claim, pushing it at least 61 times, while Fox & Friends (36 times), The Faulkner Focus (31), America’s Newsroom (25), and Fox News Live (24) rounded out the top five. The network promoted the talking point on at least 30 different programs; 16 shows aired it 10 or more times.
Republican politicians followed along with the false Fox narrative, denouncing Garland and demanding his resignation. But in reality, his memo did not specifically reference terrorism or parents, much less accuse concerned parents of being domestic terrorists.
As I noted after the memo came out:
This is a case study in how the right functions as a perpetual outrage machine. Right-wing operatives and media personalities manufactured a crisis; convinced the Republican base it was in a fight for the future of civilization; provoked them to the point that some started targeting the purported aggressors with violent intimidation; and now are treating attempts to limit the resulting damage as simply more reason for that base to feel aggrieved.
The hysterics ultimately spurred a lawsuit by an association of parents and a handful of individual parents seeking to enjoin Garland’s policy. The complaint alleged that the policy would unlawfully “use federal law enforcement resources to silence parents and other private citizens who publicly object to and oppose … policies of the ‘progressive’ Left that are being implemented by school boards and school officials in public school districts.” It further claimed that “the Attorney General labels these private citizens, which includes Plaintiffs, as domestic terrorists.”
District Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump appointee, tossed the case on Friday with a scathing opinion which stated that the plaintiffs “have not sufficiently alleged that they will suffer a reputational or other cognizable injury” from the policy. As Friedrich explained, “the Attorney General’s memorandum does not apply to the plaintiff’s activities, and even if it did, the policy does not label anyone a domestic terrorist, as the plaintiffs suggest.”
The dismissal is a defeat for the right-wing institutions that have sought to use critical race theory to mobilize Republican energy. The suit was filed by David Yerushalmi, described by the Southern Policy Law Center as “the father of the anti-Sharia movement,” and Robert Muise via their right-wing anti-Muslim American Freedom Law Center. Four of the named plaintiffs – Xi Van Fleet, Joe Mobley, Michael Rivera, and Shawntel Cooper – had appeared on Fox to denounce critical race theory. Nor are they simply concerned parents – Mobley is a right-wing podcaster; Rivera launched a campaign for the school board of Loudoun County, Virginia, on Fox & Friends; and Cooper is a member of the right-wing group Parents Against Critical Theory.
Fox has yet to address the judge’s ruling on its airwaves. But on Friday night, hours after it was issued, Fox host Jesse Watters asked his viewers, “Remember Merrick Garland labeled concerned parents ‘terrorists’ because the National School Board Association told him to?”
Right-wing zombie falsehoods may die in court, but on Fox they shamble on forever.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video databases for all original programming on Fox News Channel for the term “parent” within five words of the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist” from October 4, 2021, when Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo regarding threats to schools, through September 24, 2022.
We counted mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker made the claim that the the Biden administration or the school board association called parents “terrorists.” We defined a claim as a block of uninterrupted speech by a single speaker. For host monologues, headlines, and correspondent reports, we considered claims as blocks of uninterrupted speech between read quotes or played clips. We did not include the speech within a read quote or played clip unless a speaker in the segment positively affirmed said speech either directly before or after the quote was read or the clip was played.