By Julie Watts

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Several Facebook parent groups that have been critical of school COVID policies suddenly disappeared from the social media platform this week. At least one of the groups is suing the state over school mandates.

This comes just days after a Facebook whistleblower testified on Capitol Hill and the Justice Department announced a crackdown on harassment against school administrators.

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The DOJ issued a memo to the FBI and others this week addressing violent threats against against school officials and teachers, often prompted by COVID mandates

But while the FBI does investigate criminal acts and threats, opinions and speech are constitutionally protected, which is why many were suspect when, shortly after the DOJ’s announcement, several parent groups disappeared from Facebook without any warning or explanation.

The reopen California  schools Facebook group suddenly disappeared on Wednesday, followed by a similar California parent group the next day and other groups across the country. Several had the word “reopen” in their title.

“I think there is a connection between the DOJ announcement, as well as some of the other testimony from a former Facebook employee in Congress,” said Jonathan Zacherson.

Zacherson is the founder of the Reopen California Schools Facebook group. It has more than 18,000 members.

CBS13 interviewed Zacherson for a story on distance learning failure rates that aired Wednesday — the day his group disappeared.

We feel that we are under attack because we’ve had such influence here in the state with getting schools open and getting some of these stories, that would normally be suppressed, out there,” Zacherson said.

He stressed that they closely monitor and moderate their page to remove questionable comments and posts.

“We’re obviously against any kind of violence. We’ve spoken out against that in our group,” he said.

CBS13 has never seen any threats of violence or violations of Facebook policy on the page in the many months that we’ve followed the group’s posts.

Though, members have certainly been critical of mask and vaccine mandates and the Newsom administration.

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Assemblymember Kevin Kiley released a statement Friday calling on Facebook to immediately restore the Facebook group, stating: “Facebook’s censorship of the group is particularly troubling because Reopen California Schools is currently engaged in litigation against Governor Newsom.”

Though another California parent Facebook group that is involved in that same lawsuit, Let Them Breathe, was not taken down.

CBS13 specifically asked the governor’s office if they had anything to do with the removal. A source inside the administration called the allegations ridiculous.

“What we need to remember,” stressed UC Hasting Law Professor John Myers, “is that the First Amendment is designed to protect unpopular speech, not to afford a platform for the majority, but to protect the minority.”

However, he stressed that social media platforms aren’t legally required to let you voice your opinion.

“There is no First Amendment right to be on Facebook. Facebook is not the government,” he clarified. “The First Amendment applies to government limits on freedom of speech, not private industry.

Zacherson said he repeatedly reached out to Facebook for answers with no response.

So we reached out to  Facebook Friday, along with the Governor’s office. A few hours later, in the middle of our interview Zacherson, the groups were suddenly restored.

in a statement, Facebook would only say: “These groups were removed in error and they have been restored.”

But considering the timing, Jonathan is suspect.

“I do give them the benefit of the doubt that it was a mistake,” Zacherson said. However, I think with the timing of everything that’s going on, I suspect there might be some algorithm behind the scenes…best case scenario that in that they misidentified certain things in the group.”

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“If it really wasn’t for the media and politicians getting involved in this particular case, what other groups would be suppressed and silenced out there?”

Julie Watts