Unmasking Moms for Liberty
Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit claiming to advocate for “parental rights,” appears to be using parents as pawns to advance a far-right agenda.
The group — which has quickly gained substantial media attention, becoming a right-wing sweetheart and mainstream spectacle — has attempted to paint itself as a grassroots entity driven entirely by passionate parents. But in reality, it benefits from right-wing funding and ties to traditional Republican political figures.
As issues related to parents, schools, and so-called “critical race theory” drive local organizing and elections, it is essential that media report on Moms for Liberty and similar groups with the appropriate context.
The Washington Post published a report on Moms for Liberty in October, framing the organization as “channeling a powerful frustration among conservative mothers.” In fact, these well-connected partisans are opportunistically manufacturing outrage and selling it to parents under the guise of empowerment.
The article not only wrongly portrays the group as a grassroots organization and suggests that it’s primarily member-funded, it also leaves out key details about the co-founders and the group's right-wing affiliations. For example, after interviewing the vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party about his enthusiasm for the group, the Post notes that his wife is “loosely aligned with Moms for Liberty.” In reality, the group’s initial incorporation documents list her as a co-director.
Moms for Liberty is run by Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, two former school board members serving in neighboring Florida counties. The group was incorporated on January 1 and has since “grown to 135 chapters in 35 states, with 56,000 members and supporters, according to the organization’s founders,” per the Post.
Moms for Liberty has county-specific chapters across the country that target local school board meetings, school board members, administrators, and teachers. The group advocates to strip districts of protective COVID-19 measures and modify classroom curriculum to exclude the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) and sex education, all in the name of “parental rights.”
“Parental rights” means strategically harassing public schools
On October 4, Attorney General Merrick Garland released a memo condemning a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.” Although Moms for Liberty is not the only factor in this spike in harassment, the group grew in membership during this same time period that school board members across the United States started facing an increase in threats from angry parents and community members.
Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard County School Board member who unseated Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich, traced harassment in her district back to the beginning of Moms for Liberty protests during school board meetings. Writing in The Washington Post, Jenkins noted that the group first targeted the county’s LGBTQ guidelines that protected students by allowing for “the right to dress and use bathrooms according to the gender they identify with.” According to Jenkins, parents reportedly began calling school board members “pedophiles” and threatening them, saying, “We’re coming at you like a freight train! We are going to make you beg for mercy. If you thought January 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!”
She was later targeted by Florida state Rep. Randy Fine, a Moms for Liberty supporter and donor, who posted Jenkins’ cell phone number on Facebook and instructed his followers to “stand up for your rights, call Jenkins RIGHT NOW and let her know exactly how you feel.” Someone even falsely reported Jenkins for child abuse, she said, prompting an investigation from the Florida Department of Children and Families.
An administrator of the Facebook group for the Livingston County, Michigan, chapter posted a threatening message directed to anyone backing Biden’s review of school board threats and violence: “Not a single person on the right side of the aisle better be backing this, if they are they better be prepared to be REMOVED 1776 style.” (The “1776” reference is about the American Revolution; in far-right circles, “1776” often implies the threat of political violence.)
This sort of conduct is no surprise given the previous behavior of one of the group’s co-founders. According to Vero News, a local news outlet for Indian River County, Florida, co-founder Justice visited her fifth-grade son’s school to oppose the district’s COVID-19 mask mandate and was “being so disruptive and disrespectful in her interactions with Beachland teachers and administrators” that the school’s superintendent “warned she could be barred from the campus.” The district’s superintendent wrote a memo to the school board after Justice’s visit, promising that “if this behavior continues, the district will initiate the process to trespass this individual through law enforcement.”
Justice’s behavior was not new. She was also criticized for her lack of professionalism while serving on the school board because of her frequent “inappropriate outbursts,” and she even attacked local news coverage of the school board during her term.
Funding: more than just T-shirt sales
In a Washington Post interview, co-founder Descovich dodged a question about the group receiving financial support from GOP donors, saying, “If someone wants to give us a million dollars, we would take it, but it’s just not happening.” She claimed that instead, the organization is funded by individual memberships and proceeds from T-shirts sales.
In an interview with education news site The 74, Descovich once again hyped the claim that the group sells “a lot of T-shirts” and that's its “biggest funding source right now.” Its annual budget is allegedly about $150,000 and, according to Descovich, “funded by mostly just small donors.”
There are few, if any, financial disclosures available to review since the group is newly incorporated. But there is ample evidence, via donor lists posted from events and political action committee finances, to suggest that the group is supported by far more than just T-shirt sales and membership fees.
For example, Moms for Liberty Inc. (the group’s official name) is the recipient of funds from Conservatives for Good Government, a right-wing Florida political action committee. The group also hosts a number of high-dollar fundraisers, such as an event on June 15 featuring former Fox News host Megyn Kelly. An archived version of the event page and a list of top sponsors show that the named sponsors alone gave $57,000 — and that doesn’t include general admission tickets ($50), bonus promotional packs ($30), and any anonymous donors. The event also boasted several GOP-affiliated donors, including Florida state Sen. Debbie Mayfield and Florida House of Representative members Randy Fine and Tyler Sirois.
Moms for Liberty has serious GOP connections
Moms for Liberty presents itself as a grassroots effort led by parents, but in reality the organization is well-connected with a variety of Republican politicians and entities.
The group’s most notable GOP affiliation comes from Christian Ziegler, vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party. Ziegler spoke to The Washington Post and praised Moms for Liberty, saying, “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic. But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.”
He also said he expects Moms for Liberty’s members to, as the Post put it, “become foot soldiers” for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reelection campaign. Ziegler served as a “media surrogate” on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and was once a Heritage Foundation congressional fellow.
The Washington Post reported that Ziegler’s wife is “loosely aligned with Moms for Liberty.” In reality, Ziegler’s wife, Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler, is listed on the initial Moms for Liberty incorporation document as a co-director of the organization, and Descovich credited her in a December 10, 2020, Facebook post as one of the creators of Moms for Liberty. (A February 8 amendment shows that Ziegler was later removed from the document as director.) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis even reportedly praised her by name at an October 15 event.
Moms for Liberty members have also been pictured with DeSantis, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), his wife Kelley Paul, Trump's son Eric Trump, and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY). Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Ralph Rebandt participated in a discussion in a closed Moms for Liberty chapter Facebook group in which he called the COVID-19 vaccine a “genetic altering shot.”
Other right-wing and far-right affiliations
Moms for Liberty also enjoys the partnership and support of a number of right-wing and even far-right organizations. The organization has partnered with Parents Defending Education, a group of “corporate school privatizers going hard right to attack school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers.” PDE President Nicole Neily has been described as a “veteran political operative affiliated with the Koch network.” According to Justice’s Facebook post, Moms for Liberty partnered with PDE in May.
PDE Director of Outreach Erika Sanzi has been regularly interacting with Moms for Liberty’s Twitter account since February. And Jill Simonian, director of outreach for propaganda outlet PragerU, also reached out to co-founders Justice and Descovich in June on Twitter, writing, “Hi ladies, please message me xo.” Since then, the Moms for Liberty Twitter account has frequently interacted with both PragerU and Simonian, encouraging followers to watch PragerU videos and asking Simonian for resources to share. In October, Simonian thanked Moms for Liberty on Twitter for “standing UP.”
Pictures from an October 15 Moms for Liberty event about CRT in public schools also revealed the conspiratorial basis for the group’s claims. A projected slide from the event claimed that “globalists, utopians, socialists, totalitarians and the UN are using public schools to undermine freedom and Christianity.”
Moms for Liberty regularly boosts the Heritage Foundation
Moms for Liberty also appears to be affiliated with -- or at least a frequent promoter of -- the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing Koch-funded think tank with a history of attempting to influence public education.
According to a recent report by the UnKoch My Campus campaign on “ultra right think tanks and critical race theory,” the Heritage Foundation and other groups have “used their influence to generate and spread talking points, briefed state and federal legislators on model policy, and attempted to generate grassroots mobilization against local school districts.”
The “resources for parents” page on Moms for Liberty’s website is almost exclusively composed of links to the Heritage Foundation. The page first directs parents to a “Heritage Action for America” guide to filing an open records request. Next, the page directs parents to the Leadership Institute -- an organization run by Morton Blackwell, who received the Heritage Foundation’s “Titan of Conservatism Award.” The Heritage Foundation’s website is listed as the next resource. After that, the Heritage Foundation’s guide to the Constitution is listed.
The Heritage Foundation has spent much of 2021 using scare tactics to boost opposition to CRT, publishing commentary, reports, and even a legislation tracker on the issue.
Becoming right-wing media sweethearts
One peculiar piece of the Moms for Liberty puzzle is the unusually quick amplification from right-wing media after the group was first launched. Descovich was a guest on The Rush Limbaugh Show on January 27, just weeks after the organization was incorporated and when it had few members. The unusually speedy reception of the group, as well as its right-wing and far-right media connections, should raise flags.
Other Moms for Liberty interviews and media appearances, and favorable mentions include:
- Moms for Liberty received a shoutout on Tucker Carlson Tonight in February from anti-vaxxer Dr. Naomi Wolf.
- Breitbart wrote about Moms for Liberty in February, a month after the group’s official launch.
- Descovich spoke with Glenn Beck in March, and Beck has since become an active supporter of the group — he even has a “Moms for Liberty” tag on his website.
- In August, Descovich was interviewed by Newsmax, about the supposed “cancellation of MOM!”
- In October, the Daily Caller favorably reported on Moms for Liberty, describing the group simply as “concerned parents” who organized.
It’s critical to accurately report on Moms for Liberty (and affiliated groups) by seriously examining the organization’s high-profile ties to right-wing elected officials, institutions, and media outlets. Without the spotlight of responsible media, the organization will continue to brand itself as ordinary moms banding together to fight for “parental liberties,” when it’s clear that powerful people and institutions on the right are actually pulling the strings.