AP “fact checkers” play semantics over teacher’s associations’ letter comparing school board protesters to terrorists

The Associated Press’ Fact Check team labeled as “false” the claim that the National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden to label school board protests as domestic terrorists. In fact, a letter sent by the NSBA to Biden on Sept. 29 in fact states (in part) that acts of malice and threats towards school boards “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes” and “as such, NSBA requests a joint expedited review by the U.S. Departments of Justice, Education, and Homeland Security, along with the appropriate training, coordination, investigations, and enforcement mechanisms from the FBI, including any technical assistance
necessary from, and state and local coordination with, its National Security Branch and Counterterrorism Division, as well as any other federal agency with relevant jurisdictional authority and oversight.

In their effort to claim the NSBA did not ask the Biden administration to treat school board protesters as terrorists, the AP fact-checkers rely on a semantic interpretation of what the letter actually says. While the NBSA letter never says verbatim that the Biden administration should “label parents who protest school policies domestic terrorists” it clearly compares their acts of protest to domestic terrorism, asks the Biden administration to review it quickly and recommends doing so with assistance from the FBI’s counterterrorism office and using surveillance laws “in regards to domestic terrorism” as part of its investigative effort.

There have been a number of high-profile protests of school curriculums across the U.S., with complaints about schools adopting controversial and racially-charge critical race theory curriculums, schools teaching with sexually explicit material and schools compelling children to wear masks or continue to remain online-only citing COVID concerns. The range of complaints have led parents and activists to protest at school board meetings and complain to schools.

In a Sept. 29 letter, the NSBA listed 20 instances of threats, harassment, disruption and acts of intimidation. These instances include a variety of critical remarks as well as one incident of a man charged with aggravated battery after striking someone while he was being removed from a school board meeting, another being arrested for an unspecified reason, another being ticketed for trespassing and another who was injured in an unspecified manner.

In their letter, the NSBA wrote, “Acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes” and  “As such, NSBA requests a joint expedited review by the U.S. Departments of Justice, Education, and Homeland Security, along with the appropriate training, coordination, investigations, and enforcement mechanisms from the FBI, including any technical assistance necessary from, and state and local coordination with, its National Security Branch and Counterterrorism Division, as well as any other federal agency with relevant jurisdictional authority and oversight. Additionally, NSBA requests that such review examine appropriate enforceableactions against these crimes and acts of violence under the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the PATRIOT Act in regards to domestic terrorism, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Violent Interference with Federally Protected Rights statute, the Conspiracy Against Rights statute, an Executive Order to enforce all applicable federal laws for the of students and public school district personnel, and any related measure.”

In their fact check, the AP labeled as “false” the claim “The National School Boards Association is asking the Biden administration to label parents who protest school policies domestic terrorists.”

It is a reasonable assertion that comparing a group’s actions to terrorism, requesting the Biden admin direct investigations with the help of a counterterrorism office and counterterrorism legislation is in-effect treating a group like terrorists, even if there is no formal “terrorist” label.

The AP’s fact-check is technically true that no request for a terrorism label was made in the NBSA letter, but the fact-check obfuscates the significant point that the NBSA letter clearly calls upon Biden to treat school board protesters as terrorists, at least in everything but name.

Such semantic defenses can be employed as a tactic to shield the NBSA and the Biden administration from potential criticism by creating the impression that there’s no merit to the claim that the NBSA wants to treat protesters like terrorists.

Furthermore, the AP fact-check alludes to a variety of social media posts that it says make the claim the NBSA letter was requesting a terrorism label. The AP never links to these various posts, so it is difficult to independently assess them for their substances. It is also not clear if these posts making the claim that the NBSA wanted a domestic terrorism label were more prominent than other posts accurately stating the NBSA wanted protesters treated like domestic terrorists. It is unclear then if the AP is cherry-picking weaker or slightly inaccurate posts about the NBSA’s letter and propping them up as a straw-man representation of what the main controversy about the letter is.

A more transparent fact-check would clearly include the underlying claim that is being fact-checked and make it clear if more accurate claims about the issue are being raised, so that it doesn’t appear as though the fact-checker is deliberately referencing a weaker argument to dismiss a real controversy.

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