The announcement that the Justice Department may intervene in protests at school boards across the nation has apparently turned Missouri Gov. Mike Parson into a free speech libertarian.
“This action by the Biden Administration jeopardizes local control and sets a dangerous precedent against those who simply disagree,” Parson tweeted after the announcement. “President Biden cannot be allowed to criminalize Missouri parents who want to access their elected school boards.’’
Is Parson really siding with out-of-control parents who brawl in school parking lots and threaten school board members for asking kids to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic, or for teaching about the Black experience in America?
We agree that substantial federal involvement in curbing the outbreak of threats, harassment and physical violence plaguing volunteer school boards is unnecessary. If the DOJ has that kind of time on its hands, maybe it could investigate the disastrous Kansas City, Kansas Police Department.
Former President Donald Trump’s Justice Department opened hundreds of domestic terrorism investigations following the murder of George Floyd, and subsequent protests. Then-Attorney General William Barr said “anti-government extremists” had “engaged in indefensible acts of violence designed to undermine public order.”
The idea that overly belligerent advocates at public meetings should be immune from scrutiny because they “simply disagree” with vaccine mandates, or mask orders, or race relations, isn’t true, and ignores recent history.
A year ago, a handful of people gathered outside the Missouri governor’s mansion to protest a crime bill Parson supported. The protesters were promptly pepper-sprayed and arrested. We found no evidence that Parson stepped outside to protect those who “simply disagreed” with his position.
Last year, hundreds of people protested in Kansas City against police violence. The governor activated the National Guard to suppress those protests. “You cannot let people go out here and commit violent crimes in the sake of trying to push for reform,” Parson said.
“If you want to do peaceful protests that we’ve seen in the past to make changes, we support that, but the violence you’re seeing out there right now has nothing to do with peaceful protest, nor changing anything to me. It’s just pure violence.”
School boards are simply asking for the same protection against “pure violence,” and they deserve it.
“We don’t want people thinking we don’t want to hear from them. We do,” said Nicole Kirby, spokeswoman for the Park Hill district.
But when folks show up screaming expletives and threatening board members with bodily harm, that is not free speech, but harassment. In Missouri, that’s a class A misdemeanor and should be treated as such.
The National School Boards Association asked for federal involvement in harassment claims, which it said “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
Speakers at school board meetings are not domestic terrorists. But domestic terrorism does exist, from Oklahoma City to Charlottesville to the U.S. Capitol. Speakers who move from dissent to physical violence are not protected by the First Amendment.
We’d urge Gov. Parson — and other officeholders in the Kansas City region — to call for respect and quiet dialogue, from all sides, on all of these issues. We haven’t seen that yet.
This was first published by the Kansas City Star and is reprinted with permission.