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Appeals Court Rules Teacher Who Wore MAGA Hat to Staff Training Day is Protected Under First Amendment

A middle school teacher in Southwest Washington can sue the school’s principal for telling him that he could not wear a “Make America Great Again” hat to school, an appeals court has ruled.

Former Wy’east Middle School teacher Eric Dodge claims that he was censored after wearing the hat to a teacher training day in 2019.

In a ruling last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit defended Dodge’s right to wear the hat, citing the First Amendment.

Dodge claims that the teacher who was leading a cultural sensitivity programming session complained to the principal about the hat, saying that it made her feel “intimidated and traumatized.”

According to the lawsuit, one teacher cried over the hat and another claimed to feel threatened.

The complaints prompted Principal Caroline Garrett to tell Dodge to use “better judgment” in the future — but he wore the hat again the next day.

At the end of the training day, Dodge says that he asked Principal Garrett about opportunities to teach other classes, but she responded by asking him “What is the fucking deal with your hat?” He claims that she called him a “homophobe and a racist and a bigot and hateful.”

Principal Garrett has denied his recounting of the conversation but claimed that Trump’s remarks about illegal immigrants made the hat an “affront to Wy’east’s agenda of cultural inclusivity and interest in creating a safe place for ELL students.”

“Mr. Dodge’s decision to wear his MAGA hat on school grounds within weeks of the Trump Administration’s loud and publicized initiative to deport as many immigrants as possible was an affront to Wy’east’s agenda of cultural inclusivity and interest in creating a safe place for ELL students. Ms. Garrett had a reasonable basis, given the anti-immigrant tenor radiating from the administration, to demonstrate inclusivity and tolerance to ELL students and their parents on the school campus,” Garrett told the court.

According to a report from KPIC, “Principal Garrett then took adverse employment action against him when she told him he’d need his union rep the next time she saw him with the hat.” He claims that the board gave Garrett the option of resigning or facing discipline over the hat.

Dodge resigned from teaching in 2020.

Dodge went on to file a lawsuit against Garrett, the school’s HR officer Janae Gomes, and the Evergreen School District.

A lower court dismissed the lawsuit, but the appeals court ruled that he could sue Garrett specifically.

“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. Therefore, Principal Garrett’s asserted administrative interest in preventing disruption among staff did not outweigh plaintiff’s right to free speech,” the court’s ruling states.

The court found that the targeting of Dodge was “[E]ven more troublesome,” because “Principal Garrett openly admitted and defended her allowance of other political symbols and speech at Wy’east, including a Black Lives Matter poster hanging in the school library and a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker displayed on her own car.”

The school now has a policy banning all political speech on campus.

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