The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a local former teacher, finding that his wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat supporting former President Donald Trump to school is protected speech under the First Amendment.
Eric Dodge, a former middle school science teacher in Vancouver, Washington, brought a “Make America Great Again” hat with him to an Evergreen Public Schools building twice before the 2019-2020 school year, according to court records.
On the first of those occasions, Dodge donned the cap at an all-staff ‘racial bias’ training, the Associated Press reports.
Tensions spiraled after Wy’East Middle School Principal Caroline Garret told Dodge to ‘use better judgment’ according to the Washington Times. Dodge then said he was “verbally attacked” by Garret and other members of the school’s staff after bringing the hat to school again, arguing that those attacks were a violation of his First Amendment rights.
The 9th Circuit’s appeals panel concluded in a Dec. 29 ruling that the school district failed to prove a “tangible disruption” to the school’s operations that would justify curtailing Dodge’s First Amendment rights.
Judge Danielle J. Forrest, a 2019 appointee of Donald Trump, wrote that political differences cannot outweigh free speech rights:
“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.”
First Amendment expert and dean emeritus at the Lewis & Clark Law School Stephen Kanter argued that Forrest’s opinion is the right one.
“There is hate speech, there is threatening speech,” Kanter told The Oregonian/OregonLive, “but a MAGA hat falls far short of that.”
Although the panel ruled in Dodge’s favor, it also found no administrative wrongdoing from Evergreen Public Schools or chief human resources officer Janae Gomes.
Gomes’s attorney, Michael McFarland, said he and his clients are satisfied with the ruling’s results:
“Gomes and EPS have from the outset of this litigation denied having taken any adverse action against Mr. Dodge … In fact, Ms. Gomes worked tirelessly to assist Mr. Dodge to navigate his complicated employment and health benefits situation.”
The Oregonian/OregonLive reports that neither Dodge nor Garrett could be reached for comment.
Dodge resigned from his teaching post in 2020.