Americans have every right to talk to their elected representatives. You can write, call or email a U.S. senator, member of Congress or state legislator and sometimes meet with them or their staffs. At the local level, there are even more options. Many meetings of local government, for example, include a comment period during which residents can express their concerns.

Dialoguing with elected representatives is a great thing to do; threatening them is not. This should be an obvious distinction, but it seems to be getting lost on some people these days.

In some parts of the country, meetings of school boards and other units of local government have been extremely contentious, as Christian nationalists and others denounce policies designed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Speaking out against these policies is fine, but some people are doing more than that – they’re engaging in forms of threats and abuse that lurch over the line.

Jennifer D. Jenkins, a school board member in Brevard County, Fla., recently wrote about her experiences in The Washington Post. Jenkins, who was elected to the board last year, has been targeted by an extremist group called Moms for Liberty, which has attacked the school system for its policies that welcome LGBTQ students and for allegedly teaching critical race theory – something the district is not doing.

But policies over how to keep students safe from coronavirus really set off these moms.

Jenkins writes, “By April, protesters had begun to gather not just at board meetings but also in front of my house. A group of about 15 shouted ‘Pedophiles!’ as my neighbors walked their dogs, pushing their infants in strollers. ‘We’re coming for you,’ they yelled, mistaking friends standing on my porch for me and my husband. ‘We’re coming at you like a freight train! We are going to make you beg for mercy. If you thought January 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!’”

Jenkins continues, “State Rep. Randy Fine, an anti-mask crusader, posted my cellphone number on his Facebook page and urged residents to call me. When my voice mailbox filled, he encouraged text messages. During televised board meetings, I still receive texts commenting on what I am saying and wearing.

After [Gov. Ron] DeSantis removed me from the audience of a news conference promoting monoclonal antibody treatments and addressing concerns about mask mandates at the county Department of Health last month, more protesters arrived at my home. They claimed to have been sent by Fine, who had been standing beside the governor at the news conference. ‘Be careful, your mommy hurts little kids!’ one shouted at my daughter. ‘You’re going to jail!’ they chanted. As I read my daughter a bedtime story inside, they walked outside her bedroom window toward their parked cars. I went out to ensure that they were leaving. One coughed in my face while another shouted, ‘Give her covid!’ A third swung a ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag near my face. My neighbors told me they had seen protesters brandishing weapons in the church parking lot behind my house.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) announced plans to address violent threats against teachers, administrators and school board members. Predictably, this led to Christian nationalist organizations and their political allies asserting that the Biden administration is trying to squelch parents’ free-speech rights.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has made it clear that parents’ rights to peacefully protest aspects of the curriculum or school policies they oppose will always be protected. But there’s no free-speech right to threaten someone, harass them or engage in violence. (And if anyone believes this is all overblown, please review the news footage from Jan. 6.)

Working in a public school or serving on a school board is hard enough. The men and women who chose to do this all-too-often underappreciated work need to know that they and their families will be safe from extremists who believe violence is an acceptable way to achieve their goals.