Republican senators clashed with Attorney General Merrick Garland during a tense Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. At issue was the Justice Department’s recent memo instructing national law enforcement agencies to protect local school boards from the alleged threat of violently angry parents attending school board meetings.
Garland denied that his memo called for the FBI to police parents upset about school curriculum issues and other policies. He also equivocated on whether a letter from the National School Board Association—which had called irate parents a potential source of “domestic terrorism”—had prompted his department to act.
Mainstream media reporters seized on an exchange between Garland and Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Tex.). Aaron Rupar, formerly of Vox and ThinkProgress, described the moment as “Cruz defending Nazi salutes at school board meetings.”
Ted Cruz defends Nazi salutes at school board meetings pic.twitter.com/9FJHJ97rFE
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 27, 2021
Similarly, The Daily Beast headlined its article, “Ted Cruz Defends Parents Doing Nazi Salutes at School Board Meetings.” And on MSNBC, host Ari Melber said Ted Cruz “appeared to defend the right to do the Nazi salute, saying it’s ‘free speech.'” In response, National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke correctly noted that Cruz isn’t merely “saying” it’s free speech: “It is free speech. Garland agreed because he, too, knows it’s free speech.”
Clearly, something was lost in translation. For one thing, the parent doing the Nazi salute was not a Nazi; the parent was accusing the school board of being Nazis. (That is of course hyperbolic, though accusing one’s political enemies of being Nazis is a time-honored tactic beloved by both left and right.) More importantly, Cruz was not defending the content of the speech; he was pointing out that it was protected by the First Amendment. As Cruz asserted, and as Garland agreed, parents have the First Amendment right to holler at the school board. And he did not pick this example at random; he cited it because the National School Board Association had mentioned it in its letter. Cruz was arguing, correctly, that First Amendment–protected activities should not be conflated with violent threats.
Feel free to dunk on Ted Cruz when he deserves it. In this case, he doesn’t.
Update: This post initially identified Aaron Rupar as a former employee of Media Matters. He was a former employee of ThinkProgress.