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Former teacher who wore MAGA hat to school was protected by First Amendment, court rules

Science teacher Eric Dodge wore the hat supporting former President Donald Trump to a staff-only cultural sensitivity and racial bias training and one other occasion.
"Make America Great Again" hats on sale in New York on Nov. 9, 2016.
Make America Great Again hats on sale in New York on Nov. 9, 2016.David Cliff / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images file
/ Source: Associated Press

VANCOUVER, Wash. — The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a former teacher in Vancouver, Washington, concluding that his wearing a hat supporting former President Donald Trump to school was protected speech under the First Amendment.

Court documents show that science teacher Eric Dodge brought the “Make America Great Again” baseball cap with him to an Evergreen Public Schools building twice before the 2019-2020 school year. The Columbian reported. The first occasion was to a staff-only cultural sensitivity and racial bias training.

Wy’east Middle School Principal Caroline Garret allegedly told him to use better judgment. Dodge said he was “verbally attacked” by Garret and other school employees after bringing the hat again, and that retaliation amounted to a violation of his First Amendment rights.

The appeals panel concluded in a Dec. 29 ruling that the district failed to show evidence of a “tangible disruption” to school operations necessary to outweigh the teacher’s First Amendment rights, the court ruled.

“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,” Judge Danielle J. Forrest wrote in the opinion.

The country’s freedom of expression does have significant exceptions. “There is hate speech, there is threatening speech,” First Amendment expert and dean emeritus at the Lewis & Clark Law School, Stephen Kanter, told The Oregonian/OregonLive, “but a MAGA hat falls far short of that.”

The appeals panel also found that both the Evergreen Public Schools and chief human resources officer Janae Gomes did not take any improper administrative action against Dodge.

Neither Dodge nor Garrett could be reached for comment by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Michael McFarland, a lawyer representing the school district and Gomes, said his clients are happy with the ruling.

Dodge resigned in 2020.