Nadler Opening Statement for Hearing on “Free Speech: The Biden Administration’s Chilling of Parents’ Fundamental Rights”
Washington, March 23, 2023
Washington, D.C. - Today, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening statement, as prepared, during a Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government hearing on “Free Speech: The Biden Administration’s Chilling of Parents’ Fundamental Rights:”
"Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would also like to thank the Gentlewoman from Pennsylvania, Ms. Scanlon, and to congratulate her on becoming Ranking Member of this Subcommittee—the first woman to do so—and a position I also held for many years.
"Mr. Chairman, our First Amendment protections are precious. There is a reason the Framers enshrined the freedoms of religion, speech, the press, and the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress as the First Amendment to the Constitution.
"These rights limit government’s power over our individual lives, thereby helping enable us to effectively participate in democratic self-governance. And restrictions on these freedoms is certainly a topic worthy of examination in this subcommittee.
"It is unfortunate, therefore, that the new Republican Majority would waste an opportunity for a serious discussion of this issue and is instead using the first hearing of this Congress to advance the spurious assertion that the Biden Administration and the FBI are somehow chilling parents’ free speech rights.
"There is scant evidence to back up the bogus claim of a wide-ranging federal government conspiracy to quell opposition to COVID-19 policies or so-called “woke indoctrination” by targeting parents who protested at school boards, as our colleagues across the aisle would have us believe.
"The Republican Majority has wasted untold taxpayer dollars in a failed attempt to corroborate an elaborate conservative persecution fantasy built atop just two documents—a single September 2021 letter sent by the National School Boards Association, or NSBA, to President Biden requesting federal assistance in the face of real and credible threats of violence at school board meetings, and a brief one-page memo issued by Attorney General Merrick Garland simply directing the FBI and federal prosecutors to hold meetings with local law enforcement partners to discuss criminal threats against school personnel.
"Notably, neither the NSBA letter nor the Attorney General’s memo mentioned the word “parent,” and the Attorney General’s memo did not use the term “domestic terrorism.” No amount of hysteria that we will hear on the other side today will change those two facts.
"Instead, this false Republican narrative—unsupported by the evidence—appears to have originated in messaging guidance designed by a documentary filmmaker associated with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
"The Majority has also relied on so-called “whistleblower” testimony to reinforce this manufactured narrative, pointing to the FBI’s use of “threat tags” as it investigated potential criminal conduct.
"In fact, the use of such “threat tags” is nothing nefarious. According to the FBI, it simply uses these tags to track information and to spot trends but it does not necessarily signal a full investigation. Here, the tag was used to track threats directed against school officials, not parents that attended school board meetings, as has been claimed by the Majority.
"Moreover, as the Republicans’ own recent interim staff report acknowledges, the FBI has indicated that none of the school board-related investigations have resulted in federal arrests or charges.
"The Majority would have the public believe that this all adds up to some murky, nefarious conspiracy orchestrated by the Biden Administration to chill parent’s free speech rights.
"But there is a simpler explanation: the DOJ did its job. We are living during an epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings. Sadly workplaces, grocery stores, places of worship, and—perhaps worst of all—schools have all been targets. And political violence of all stripes has become an increasingly common occurrence. Those of us who were in this House on January 6th know that all too well.
"In this environment, it was both reasonable and legal for the DOJ to ensure that state and local law enforcement had the resources they need to protect American citizens from violence and threats of violence.
"Of course, the First Amendment protects the right to protest vigorously, even with offensive or acerbic language. But the Supreme Court has also recognized that the First Amendment does not protect speech that is an incitement of imminent violence, a true threat of violence, or other criminal conduct. When a parent—or any other person—crosses the line from mere protest to credible threats of violence at school board meetings, this unprotected conduct undermines free speech values by intimidating other parents into silence.
"The DOJ memo explicitly acknowledged this very point, a fact my Republican colleagues always seem to ignore. Indeed, when a group of parents filed a lawsuit alleging a First Amendment violation based on the DOJ memo, a Trump-appointed district court judge dismissed the case, concluding that the memo did not target First Amendment-protected activities but, rather, it targeted unprotected criminal conduct.
"Bogus conspiracy theories aside, Americans are, in fact, currently facing a very real threat to their First Amendment rights in the education context. That threat, however, is coming from State and local governments.
"Republican-controlled State governments across the country have enacted or proposed book bans and restrictions on training and curriculum.
"Undoubtedly, my Republican colleagues will cherry pick out-of-context examples to justify this wave of legislation and other censorship measures, arguing that they are meant to protect children from age-inappropriate material or “divisive concepts.”
"But these extreme, yet often vague, legislative mandates are ultimately targeted at particular groups and they invariably focus on books by Black and LGBTQ authors and the teaching of American history that includes an honest examination of race and bigotry.
"Let me be clear: This State-mandated censorship does not protect students. Instead, these legislative efforts will likely harm students, teachers, and the quality of public education. We do not serve the interests of students when we shield them from the truth, as uncomfortable as it may be, at times.
"Moreover, such ham-handed censorship statutes can lead to absurd results. For example, a Texas school administrator had to apologize after she advised faculty members to teach “opposing perspectives” about the Holocaust in order to comply with a state law aimed at curbing the discussion of “critical race theory” in the classroom.
"An inclusive education is important for all children because it prepares students for participating in civic life in a pluralistic democracy. This state-imposed censorship will not protect our children or improve their education. To the contrary, it will harm them by promoting ignorance.
"Rather than chasing conspiracy theories and invented scandals that advance a false narrative, we have plenty of true threats to free speech that we could examine. That would be a much better use of this subcommittee’s valuable time and resources. I hope that we will chart a different course going forward.
"With that, I yield back the balance of my time."