Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita has spent much time the past three weeks claiming that President Biden’s administration is threatening Hoosiers’ First Amendment rights when it comes to voicing opinions to school boards.

“We are shining a light on injustices perpetrated against parents of schoolchildren, and it’s making a real difference,” Rokita said in a news release. “We will continue to defend the rights of parents to stay closely involved with their children’s education and speak their minds to public school officials.”

On the surface, this might sound very noble, particularly if there were truly a move afoot by the Biden administration to silence parents. Instead, the Biden administration has been working to quell the violence and threats that have been leveled against school officials and particularly members of school boards that have been made by parents across the country.

Creating fear for personal safety should not be equated with free speech.

In one of the news releases, Rokita said, “everyone involved should work together to facilitate free speech by protecting all participants at school board meetings.”

Again, on its face, this sounds like something people can get behind. Instead, it ignores one of the basic tenets of the Indiana Open Door law: People do not have the right to speak during meetings.

In a discussion about the Indiana Open Door Law, the “Handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws” produced by the office of the Indiana Public Access Counselor and the Indiana Attorney General, it says the Open Door Law “does not guarantee the right to speak at public meetings. Although an individual has the right to attend and observe all public proceedings, no specific statutory authority allows an individual to appear before and address a governing body.” (This handbook was co-produced by Rokita’s own office!)

Many if not all of the school boards serving northeast Indiana slot out time during their meetings for patron comments. And for that, we applaud them.

Unfortunately, angry people, many of whom are opposed to COVID-19 policies and what they believe is being taught in their students’ classrooms, have been protesting loudly at board meetings. Others have leveled threats against school board members.

Instead of championing efforts to promote respectful speech, Rokita sent an Oct. 18 letter to federal officials demanding “that the Biden administration cease making threats against parents such as those contained in an Oct. 4 memo from the U.S. Department of Justice, which called for the FBI and other law enforcement to keep a close eye on parents nationwide to address supposed ‘threats against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff.”’ U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Oct. 4 memo was about public safety, not curtailing free speech.

“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland said. “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.”

What we have read about and seen on television and online would hardly count as supposed threats. They have been very real. People have been stalked. Their homes have been surrounded by protesters. Personal information about officials has been shared so even more people might harass them.

We have seen this rising trend of uncivil behavior at school board meetings in our communities. At least one school board member in the four-county area has tendered a resignation because this environment has become so caustic.

Rokita needs to be less partisan in his work. He needs to stop throwing fuel on the fire during these turbulent times. Like the Biden administration, Rokita should concentrate his efforts on protecting the safety of school board members and school officials and not focus on a faulty notion that the president is trying to impede First Amendment rights.
© 2022 KPCNews, Kendallville, IN.