The National School Boards Association’s definition of what might constitute domestic terrorism and hate crimes is awfully broad.

Broad enough, potentially, to encompass actions clearly protected by the First Amendment.

The Association recently sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal law enforcement to help “deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.” The letter reads, in part: “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

In response, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the FBI would work with other federal, state and local agencies to “develop strategies against the threats,” according to an Associated Press story.

Obviously it’s not acceptable for people who are upset with school boards to escalate from verbal or written opposition to physical. But every state has criminal laws regarding assault. And most communities have police departments to deal with people who break those laws.

The School Boards Association offers no compelling evidence of a rash of violence against school boards that local officials aren’t capable of handling, or that warrants federal involvement.

The letter to Biden cites an Illinois case in which a person was arrested for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct during a school board meeting. This, not surprisingly, was accomplished without the involvement of the FBI or any other federal agency.

Other examples listed in the letter include school boards “confronted by angry mobs,” an Alabama resident who called school administrators while videoing himself on Facebook Live, and a person who yelled a Nazi salute during a school board meeting in Michigan.

Some of this behavior sounds obnoxious. Some, as with the Nazi salute, is abhorrent.

But being part of an angry mob, or making videos of phone calls with public officials, or even yelling Nazi salutes, not only is unlikely to be criminal, but it’s probably constitutionally protected speech.

This is not to suggest that people who are aggrieved by school board actions, or inactions, should seek to derail public meetings, even by nonviolent means such as shouting. This accomplishes nothing.

But the ultimate test of the First Amendment is not that it protects the soft-spoken and the reasonable. That’s easy and uncontroversial. If the term “free speech” is to be anything other than an empty platitude, it must offer equal protection for the loud, the boorish and the purveyors of conspiracy theories, even if they cause school board meetings to last longer than they otherwise would, or expose members to uncomfortable diatribes.

In any case, the reality that disgruntled citizens attend public meetings is no cause for asking the most powerful law enforcement agency in the land to get involved.

Editor’s note: This editorial originally appeared in the Baker City Herald.

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