When a science teacher named Eric Dodge decided to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat to a teacher training, he probably didn’t expect to wind up defending his constitutional rights years later before a federal appeals court. But that’s what happened — and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
just vindicated his free speech rights.
. Dodge was a longtime teacher in Washington state. In advance of the 2019-2020 school year, he was required to attend a teachers’ training focused on diversity and inclusion. He decided to bring with him a red MAGA hat, wore it outside, and then displayed it with his personal items during the training.
The instructor later complained that she felt “intimidated and traumatized” by the hat, and several teachers were upset by it, with one crying and another claiming it felt “threatening.” However, as the judge
: “There is no allegation that Dodge did anything with his hat during the training other than place it near him with his other things, nor is there any allegation that he did anything to interfere with or disrupt the training.”
Dodge was reprimanded by the principal, Caroline Garrett, and told not to wear the hat again. He did not comply and brought it with him to a second day of training. After this, Garrett threatened him with adverse employment consequences if he continued to display the hat, telling him that the next time they discussed this, he would need to bring his union representative.
Garrett sued and argued that this all violated his First Amendment rights. Last month, the court agreed.
“While some of the training attendees may have been outraged or offended by plaintiff’s political expression, no evidence of actual or tangible disruption to school operations had been presented,” Judge Danielle J. Forrest
. “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.”
The judge also pointed out the clear double standard at the school. Garrett allowed a “Black Lives Matter” post to be displayed at the school (a
message actually reaching students, not just staff) and dismissed the concern of a teacher who was married to a police officer and found the message troubling. Garrett herself also proudly displayed a bumper sticker supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on her car on school grounds.
But that’s different, she insists, because she likes those opinions.
“While the Black Lives Matter poster is a symbol of cultural acceptance and inclusivity … Mr. Dodge’s MAGA hat is a symbol commonly associated with white supremacy and other anti-immigrant sentiments,” she
. “Comparing an innocuous bumper sticker and a racially supportive poster to the MAGA hat is troglodytic and unacquainted with the affairs of the world.”
This is, of course, a completely subjective interpretation of the symbolism of a MAGA hat (and, in my own view, an absurd one). Countless Republicans would say that a MAGA hat doesn’t mean any of that to them and that they aren’t endorsing “white supremacy” with it at all. And many other people might find Garrett’s left-leaning political messages deeply offensive on the issues of abortion, police lives, and more. They could say that, in their view, a Sanders sticker represents the mass killing of unborn babies or socialist authoritarianism that
killed 100 million people
Yet this school caved to the tyranny of feelings. Rather than telling the people who felt “traumatized” or “threatened” by a hat to seek professional help and work on their emotional frailty to bring their functionality up to adult level, it enabled a heckler’s veto that would undermine free speech for all. After all, a liberal-leaning teacher in a more conservative area could have their pro-Biden hat censored for all the same reasons under this highly subjective standard. Is that really the world these people want to live in, where your right to speak is subject to the whims of the people around you?
Yes, teachers don’t have unlimited rights to subject their students to political messages. But when it comes to staff interactions and other such work-related cases, they do have First Amendment rights, given that their employer is the government.
So, regardless of whether you love former President Donald Trump or hate him, this ruling is a win for the principles of free speech that protect us all from censorship.