A middle school teacher was protected by the First Amendment when he wore his "Make America Great Again" hat at a school building, a three-judge panel has found. Eric Dodge, a science teacher at Wy'east Middle School in Vancouver, Wash., filed a legal complaint after his hat sparked an argument with Principal Caroline Garrett in August 2019, per the Oregonian. Garrett told Dodge that people had complained that the hat he wore to cultural sensitivity training was a sign of hate and bigotry. According to court records, she said she couldn't force him to leave the hat at home but asked him to "use better judgment" in the future. Dodge, who saw no issue with the hat, wore it to another school district event the following day.
That prompted a heated argument with Garrett in which Dodge said he was "verbally attacked," which he saw as retaliation that violated his First Amendment right to protected political speech. Dodge filed an internal harassment complaint that was deemed "unsubstantiated" and went on to sue Garrett, Evergreen Public Schools, and the district’s human resources chief in 2020, per Reuters. A federal judge determined there was no unlawful conduct. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in a Dec. 29 ruling, finding it saw no evidence of the "tangible disruption" to school operations that would have been needed to trump Dodge’s First Amendment rights. Dodge said Garrett called him a "racist" and "homophobe" and told him he would need a union representative if he brought the hat to school again.
"That some may not like the political message being conveyed is par for the course and cannot itself be a basis for finding disruption of a kind that outweighs the speaker's First Amendment rights," wrote Circuit Judge Danielle Forrest, one of two Trump appointees on the three-judge panel, per Reuters. The judges concluded there was "sufficient evidence" to warrant a retrial on Garrett's actions—she resigned in 2020—but cleared the school district and Chief Human Resources Officer Jenae Gomes. An expert on the First Amendment tells the Oregonian that the court made the right call. "There is hate speech, there is threatening speech," says Stephen Kanter of Lewis & Clark Law School. "But a MAGA hat falls far short of that." (Read more Make America Great Again stories.)