Analysis: Bruce Poliquin misrepresents federal steps to crack down on violence and threats to school boards

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Oct. 8—Former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin criticized President Joe Biden's administration Friday for ordering the FBI to work with educators to address a "disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence" against teachers, administrators and school board members.

Poliquin, who aims next year to win back the 2nd Congressional District seat he lost in 2018, said in a Facebook post that it "seems almost unbelievable, but it's true" that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland is "targeting parents" who want to "make their voices heard at school board meetings and other taxpayers-funded gatherings."

Garland and the FBI, though, are not targeting parents for speaking out. They are looking into ways to stop a growing trend toward violent, disruptive activities, many tied to anti-masking protests, that are making it difficult for many school board members across the country to do their volunteer or low-paid jobs.

The National School Boards Association cited more than 20 examples of disruption and intimidation in at least half a dozen states in the past couple of months from angry protesters who have, on some occasions, punched, hit or grabbed educators.

Garland's order to the FBI came in response to the association's request for federal help.

Garland said in a Monday memorandum that the U.S. Department of Justice "takes these incidents seriously and is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate. In the coming days, the department will announce a series of measures designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel."

He also told the FBI to "facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff, and will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response."

Some politicians, including Poliquin, are misrepresenting the circumstances behind the move and what the attorney general told the FBI to do about the problem.

"Any attempt by the Biden administration or his attorney general, or its agents such as the FBI, to intimidate or silence the voices of parents of school-aged children is not only outrageous, it's unconstitutional," said Poliquin, who hopes to unseat two-term U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, the Democrat who defeated him.

Claiming that Garland's order to the FBI "appears to be an attempt to intimidate American parents into silence through surveillance and investigations," Poliquin said elected officials "are paid by taxpayers to help, not bully them."

"We cannot allow federal officials to use law enforcement to shut down passionate public debate with school administrators and boards about their kids' education. It's not right and it's not fair," Poliquin said.

But there is no indication that federal officials have any intention of shutting down public debate.

Garland said in his memo that he was taking steps because there has been a spike in "threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views" across the country.

Those threats against public servants such as school board members, Garland said, "are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation's core values. Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety."

School boards in Maine and elsewhere have been hearing regularly in recent weeks from irate parents criticizing policies aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19, particularly mandates that students wear masks in the classroom.

Some of those parents have veered sharply away from civil discourse in their anger, becoming disruptive and harsh.

Jennifer Bessette of Minot told the RSU 16 board on Monday that requiring students to wear masks is akin to the tactics of sexual predators who abuse children and she asked directors if were siding with sex traffickers.

On Wednesday, John Stark of Auburn told his city's school board, "You're abusing my son by forcing him to wear a mask" and told them they were in "criminal contempt" for requiring masks. On Friday, Stark told the Sun Journal he wasn't threatening committee members. He just wanted to be heard in a public forum.

In some districts across the country, board members have felt threatened, a more worrisome trend that caused the school boards association to ask Biden for help. It said that "threats and acts of violence have become more prevalent — during public school board meetings, via documented threats transmitted through the U.S. Postal Service, through social media and other online platforms, and around personal properties."

Spurred by the letter, Garland said in his memo that "threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation's core values."

Poliquin said that "as Americans we all condemn violence," but he also pointed out that the Constitution includes the right "to speak freely and publicly about our concerns and grievances."

Garland agrees.

In his memo, the attorney general said, "While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views."

Poliquin faces a potential primary from Oakland state Rep. Mike Perkins for the GOP backing in his quest to reclaim the 2nd District seat. At least one independent, Jordan Borrowman from Lewiston, is eyeing the race as well.

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