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Shawn Vestal: Harassment-by-document is latest stage in school board disruptions

A group called Washington Parent Alliance presented members of the Central Valley School District Board with stacks of documents.  (By Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)

“Never before in the history of Washington,” begins the letter to Spokane school board members, “has your job been so difficult.”

The letter reassures the school board members that the writer does not intend to threaten them. It refers to the “extortion” of federal or state funding being tied to mask or vaccine mandates, claims state agencies are “overstepping their lawful boundaries,” and demands that the district defy state pandemic rules.

“As we finish the 2021-2022 school year, we envision a harmonious partnership between parents, school district leadership and legislators to restore the freedom of choice over what our teachers and students wear on their faces and put into their bodies,” the letter says. “However, if these freedoms are ignored by the Spokane Public School Board, we will take our children out of the public school system by the Fall of 2022.”

The letter demands an extraordinary number of public records. It asks for communications between many agencies and the district regarding COVID protocols and demands copies of state laws justifying certain actions, many of which do not make sense. A lot of the requests seem based on what you might kindly call back-of-the-envelope lawyering, couched in odd, faux-legal language.

“I, we request that this Spokane Public Schools provide me with a copy of any RCW statute that overrides and/or supercedes the requirements of RCW 49.60.215 Unfair practices of places of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, amusement–Trained dog guides and service animals.”

The document asks for loads of records no school district would have, built around a lot of pandemic conspiracy tropes – including demands for evidence that COVID-19 is not a “man-made disease,” records showing the vaccines “will alter human genetic material, change or damage the human DNA, cause birth defects, sterilize the children …,” information about aborted fetal cell lines, and documents related to whether school district officials are practicing medicine without a license.

The demands go on for 32 pages. Almost 50 people delivered the document to each member of the school board and the superintendent. Many of them did so in person at a board meeting Feb. 9 that descended into angry chaos after they refused to wear masks. When the board took the meeting virtual, some of those who came with papers to “serve” shouted “Don’t run away!” and “Cowards!” One school board member said people threw papers at them.

Each document was prepared by Luis Ewing, a man from unincorporated Moclips, Washington, in Grays Harbor County, and each is the same.

“Never before in the history of Washington …”

“Never before in the history of Washington …”

“Never before in the history of Washington …”

‘Whatever was necessary’

Harassment-by-document is the latest stage in the evolution of pandemic conspiracists targeting school boards. A similar document dump – some from the same source – was deployed at the Central Valley School board several days later, and others have occurred in other states, as well.

Some are tied to public records requests, some are frivolous “legal” demands for “administrative remedy,” and others are based on efforts to use the surety bonds that elected officials post to threaten them with personal liability over pandemic rules.

It’s happening in Virginia, Texas, California and elsewhere. There are differences among the documents and the nature of the claims, but they share a seemingly common aim: the commitment to using bogus legal claims, or misusing legitimate legal channels, to get attention and provoke.

As one woman told the Central Valley School Board when delivering the piles of documents: “We had to do whatever was necessary to get your attention.”

The technique is reminiscent of the “sovereign citizen” practice of burying public officials with absurd faux-legal documents and arguments, which was prominent in the 1990s.

“It’s the same tactic,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. “That kind of paper terrorism approach to dealing with important public policy positions is becoming a renewed feature on the right during the pandemic.”

Sovereign citizens, who had a heyday in the resurgence of extremism that followed Ruby Ridge and Waco, insist that no law applies to them – they are each a nation unto themselves. Over the years, they have buried county clerks and judges with documents that loosely resemble legal filings. Sometimes they were handwritten.

Often they were hard to comprehend, making bizarre claims about why they did not owe taxes, or should not be required to get a driver’s license, or are allowed by the Constitution to take over federal property.

Sovereign-citizen thinking has its roots in the John Birch Society and white supremacy, and its adherents have been involved in some of the most notorious, violent extremist events of the recent past, from the armed Freemen standoff in Montana in 1996 to the Malheur bird refuge occupation in 2016.

‘A cost to our district’

Burghart said the addition of crackpot lawyering to the harassment of school board members reflects another step in the radicalization in the anti-vaxxer, anti-mask movement and the marriage of pandemic conspiracy with pre-existing anti-government movements.

Though the requests lodged in Spokane and Central Valley emphasized they were not intended as threats, the filings are built on an unresolvable conflict because the legal arguments are so flawed. Delivering demands on that basis is a step in escalating conflict and when the impossible demands aren’t met, the next step, at least for some, is further conflict, he said.

Over the past year, threats of violence and harassment of school board members have become common across the country – usually linked to pandemic-related demands.

As with other modern conspiracist organizing, the role of the internet and social media has been key. Facebook has been a particular locus for COVID-19 denial. Burghart’s IREHR identified more than 1,700 separate groups, with more than 2.5 million members, engaged in forms of COVID denialism.

The recent wave of document harassment relies heavily on linking people online, driven by a handful of web sites offering “legal” advice and documents, shared widely by groups on social media.

“It’s important because it’s quickly radicalized a larger swath of the American public than we’ve seen in a long time,” Burghart said. “What used to take years now takes months.”

The demands for records under state and federal law have kept districts busy trying to satisfy the requests, diverting them from other work.

Mike Wiser, president of the Spokane school board, said he does not begrudge people the right to request public records, but such a large number of essentially duplicated requests takes a lot of time and effort to answer.

“It’s certainly their right to request it,” he said. “It’s also definitely a cost to our district and people are spending their time doing it when they could be doing other things.”

At Central Valley, the requests were among the largest ever filed. Even if some of the requests seem to be seeking records that are obviously not kept by a school district, officials must spend time and effort attempting to fulfill each request.

“It’s going to be a very long, long process,” said Marla Nunberg, district spokeswoman.

‘School Board Take Downs’

While it’s true that the folks who have taken out their ire over masks and vaccines on school board members are more numerous and outspoken, they represent a small number of people.

The group that provides the cut-and-paste documents for people to dump on their school board, the Washington Parent Alliance, has 60 members on Facebook. The box full of documents dumped on the district represents not quite 50 individual signers, in a district that serves 30,000 students.

Polling has shown majorities of Americans support mask and vaccine mandates. These disruptions – the shouting at school board members, the staged refusal to wear masks, the inane demands, the absurd legal reasoning – absorb time, efforts and resources of the people charged with overseeing the education of our kids.

The Washington Parent Alliance’s website includes little information, but it does have templates for faux-legal documents, prepared by Ewing, that people can use to oppose mask and vaccine mandates in schools and in stores, “including Costco.”

One reads, “It is undisputed pursuant to CR 8(d) that the Washington State Legislature has NEVER passed any laws requiring anyone to wear ‘face masks’ in public and it is also undisputed that Governor Jay Inslee has no authority to make any ‘Face Mask Wearing Laws’ on his own authority and therefore, Governor Jay Inslee is guilty of …”

The document proceeds to allege Inslee is guilty of perjury and other charges, and cites a lot of RCWs, some far-flung case law including a municipal court ruling out of Ventura County, California, and three Bible verses.

A website called Bonds for The Win urges parents to harass school board members with letters it provides that they can simply print and sign. These letters claim that the surety bonds school board members post make them personally liable for various offenses, some pandemic-related and others built on the range of current culture-war hobby horses.

It refers to these efforts as “School Board Take Downs.”

Here’s an excerpt from the Washington template: “The books you have brought into the school are vulgar, objectionable, contain sexual content, violent content, and are not appropriate for any child under the age of 18.”

A lawyer, not an attorney

Ewing – the legal mind behind the box full of records taking up hours of time at the Spokane school district officers – calls himself a “tribal court lawyer” and a “federal lawyer.” He also says, in the message on his cell phone, “I am not an attorney,” and that he would never belong to the “criminally corrupt” state bar.

Before he began producing documents for school critics, he offered to work on behalf of marijuana defendants. The information on his website for that effort – which was copyrighted in 2013 and for which most links no longer work – included the claim that you can’t be charged with “manufacturing” marijuana.

The site says, “you cannot MANUFACTURE Marijuana because it GROWS in Nature.

“QUESTION: How do you Manufacture a Tree?

“ANSWER: You cannot manufacture a tree, because it grows naturally!

“QUESTION: Can you Manufacture Dandylions?

“ANSWER: Dandylions grow naturally, they are not manufactured.”

Ewing responded to a request for an interview by writing in an email, “There is really no need to discuss anything until after I have forced the State of Washington to Reverse, Cancel and Withdraw all Vaccine Mandates, and all Mask Mandates in all 295 School Districts for the State of Washington. … Until I succeed which I will there is NOTHING to talk about.”

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