Tiffany Justice was fed up.
The mother of four from Vero Beach, Fla. says her children's elementary school was falling apart. The hallways were flooding. There were rats in the cafeteria. And when she went to the principal with her concerns, she says she was told that nothing could be done.
So Justice took matters into her own hands. She organized other parents and successfully pushed for renovations to the school. Then she ran for the local school board, on which she served for four years until 2019.
When the pandemic began, however, Justice said she was once again alarmed by the way the schools were being operated. Students moved to online classes. They were forced to wear masks. And the curriculum, as she tells it, had become too liberal, delving into subjects such as race and gender that she found inappropriate for young students.
That’s how Moms for Liberty began. In January 2021, Justice teamed up with a friend from the school board, Tina Descovich, in an effort to galvanize parents to fight back. Since then, the group — which describes itself as nonpartisan and claims 115,000 members — has become a major force in Republican politics.
Conservative media outlets highlight videos of members of Moms for Liberty as they turn school board meetings into raucous shouting matches. Its members have won school board seats all over the country. And at the group’s first summit meeting last year, the speakers included former HUD secretary Ben Carson and Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and conservative culture war hero who is soon expected to launch a campaign for the presidency.
DeSantis also appointed another leader of the group to a government board involved in his ongoing battle with Disney.
The group’s goal, Justice says, is to ensure that “parents have the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children.”
“One of the biggest misconceptions is somehow we want to hurt public education or defund public education. And nothing could be further from the truth,” Justice told Yahoo News. “We are disrupting the balance of power in education.
“I've seen horrible nicknames of things that people say about our organization, and it's incredibly hurtful for a group of people who profess kindness and inclusivity and lovingness,” she added.
Critics, however, see the group as a right-wing effort to indoctrinate students and censor what they learn.
"Part of what makes [them] so successful is pretending, 'We're moms, we're a community, we're just grassroots, we want to help protect your children.' It's absolute bull****, but they have a great message," Laura Leigh Abby of Defense of Democracy, a nonpartisan group advocating for an inclusive public education system, told Vice News last month. "There's a reason they're growing, because they're smart."
Marisa Fuentes, a historian and associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University who spoke to Yahoo News, goes further, contending that Moms for Liberty is dedicated to promoting white supremacy.
“It is the students of color who are the ones who really need to be protected from the centuries of racist education that gaslighted their histories and experiences and now are again being completely displaced by the parents of white children," she said. "The language of ‘protection of children’ is code for ‘White children should not be made to know how they benefit from centuries of violence, theft of land and slavery.’”
How Moms for Liberty operates
Moms for Liberty says it wants to have an elected member on the board of every school district across the country. To do this, its 275 chapters, scattered across 45 states, operate as individual entities, endorsing candidates for local school board elections and setting their own agendas for seeking to shape public education.
Moms for Liberty candidates must sign a pledge to "advance policies that strengthen parental involvement and decision-making, increase transparency, defend against government overreach, and secure parental rights at all levels of government." Parents who join the organization have a similar pledge.
Chapters host community service events and regular meetings to decide their candidate endorsements and share resources, but a lot of activity happens out of the view of the public, often on private Facebook pages where members can talk about taboo subjects.
In at least one instance in Chattanooga, Tenn., members of the local Moms for Liberty chapter targeted members of an opposing group, Moms for Social Justice, and threatened to report them for child abuse or distribution of pornography. The Moms for Liberty members called their rivals "groomers" and tagged them online as #PedophileSympathizers.
“They have literally called us witches,” one member of Moms for Social Justice told the New Republic.
Descovich, the Moms for Liberty co-founder, dismisses such reports and says they’re not in keeping with the group's goals. The group, she says, is very much mainstream.
"In 2022, our chapters endorsed in over 500 school board races across the country, and they won 275 seats," she recently told CBS News.
Jennifer Grinager, a Moms for Liberty endorsee, won a seat on the Templeton Unified School District board in Templeton, Calif., last year. She told Newsweek that she credits the organization for getting what she called sexually suggestive magazines pulled from schools.
“Parents are stepping up, learning about the curriculum and the LGBTQ agenda," she said.
'It’s just toxic'
Opponents of the group say Moms for Liberty is being disingenuous about its true objectives.
“Moms for Liberty is definitely pushing a political agenda that goes well beyond parental rights,” Leigh Ann Wheeler, a history professor at Binghamton University in upstate New York, told Yahoo News. “We can see this in its stand against mandatory mask-wearing in schools during the pandemic, as well as in the types of books it identifies as dangerous for children.”
In the last 18 months, the group has been accused of pulling age-appropriate books out of libraries and classrooms and peddling conspiracy theories about COVID and voter fraud while harassing and threatening critics.
The group has spent its short existence embroiled in controversy. In Michigan, an administrator for the local chapter's Facebook group declared that anyone who backed President Biden's review of school board threats and violence would "be REMOVED 1776 style" — which some people took as a threat. In South Carolina, a Moms of Liberty-affiliated board member named Ed Kelley allegedly declared at a chapter meeting that if his son's teacher came out as transgender, he would show up at the teacher's home with a gun.
“It is not within a teacher’s unilateral discretion to make statements about personal sexual choices to children without consulting school officials,” Kelley said in a statement, after being called to step down. “In my opinion, this teacher demonstrated poor judgment, with no consideration of the emotional impact or confusion forced upon these young, impressionable children.”
In Arkansas, the head of communications of the local chapter threatened violence towards librarians in the district, saying they should "be plowed down with a freaking gun by now," in audio obtained by Media Matters.
Most recently, at a school board forum in Pennsylvania last month, one parent, Christa Caceres, asked a candidate affiliated with Moms for Liberty, Kerri Wilson, why she objected to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Wilson said she was “fearful that there is going to be [white] children that are … going to be made to feel bad that they are not a person of color.”
Caceres's response — in a video that quickly went viral — explained that her Black son had not been taught about the nation's fraught racial history, and that he deserved to know how his ancestors contributed to the country.
“That’s equity,” Caceres, the local NAACP president, added. “That’s inclusion.”
Caceres told Yahoo News that she had had enough of Moms for Liberty’s “WWE-style of communication.”
“I think people are just tired of the performative politics,” she added. “It's just toxic. It doesn't do anything for us as a community.”
Moms for Liberty leaders say that local chapters come up with their own priorities “organically.” But across the country, those chapters have adopted a common tactic: book challenges, the American Library Association’s term for attempts to remove books from schools and libraries.
'Censorship is not liberty'
Over the last year, Moms of Liberty has made it a priority to target books with content that discusses issues of race, gender and LGBTQ rights. One chapter in Iowa, for example, created a 111-page document providing parents guidance on children's books, based on a loose rating system that rates books from 0-5, with 0 deemed appropriate for everyone and 5 as "abhorrent content," for adults only.
Books that wound up on that target list included such modern classics as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a book about a Black girl growing up in the 1940s, and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Lines like “Let’s go for a beer,” “Darlene might be pregnant” and “I don’t understand white people” were flagged in the document as inappropriate content on books approved by districts for high school education.
A short blurb in the manual states that the group refutes the label of “book banners” because they “do not want to burn books or take them out of circulation” but say parents should have a say in what their children read.
“We're not removing anything,” Justice said. “The school districts and the school boards make those decisions. Our biggest concern was that there was no process in place.”
But Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, told Yahoo News last year that in her two decades with the organization, she had never seen as many book challenges.
According to an ALA press release in March, book challenges last year had increased substantially from a record number of challenges in 2021. In all, 2,571 titles were targeted for censorship in 2022, a 38% increase on the 1,858 titles targeted for censorship in 2021. The vast majority of these titles were written by or about members of the LGBTQ community and people of color.
Caldwell-Stone said that typically, about 350 challenges are reported to her office a year, with 373 in 2019, the last full pre-pandemic school year.
“You have these — they call themselves parents’ rights organizations — pursuing this censorship agenda and arguing that censorship is the proper solution. But once you start using book banning as a tool, where does it end?” Caldwell-Stone said.
Philip Nel, an expert on children’s literature and an English professor at Kansas State University, characterized the book challenges as part of a larger right-wing backlash after former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss and the racial justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police.
“In the U.S., backlash follows progress, just as night follows day,” Nel told Yahoo News. “We are now living in that backlash, witnessing the rolling-back of voting rights, reproductive rights, civil rights, LGBTQ rights and the right to read.”
“Censorship is not liberty,” he added. “They threaten librarians, teachers, and parents who oppose them. Nothing that we're doing should create this much hate and vitriol toward us, until I have to ask myself why?"