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Washington teacher who brought MAGA hat to school trainings protected under First Amendment, court rules

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District ruled a former Washington teacher’s decision to bring a “Make America Great Again” hat to a school training was protected speech under the First Amendment.

Court documents showed former Wy’east Middle School science teacher Eric Dodge, an educator of more than 17 years, wore the controversial hat while walking up to an Evergreen Public Schools building to attend a staff-only cultural sensitivity and racial bias training.

Dodge did not wear the hat during the training, but had it set it out where others could see it near his belongings. Some attendees reportedly said they felt “intimidated” and “threatened” by Dodge’s decision to have the hat with him, court documents said.

Wy’east Middle School Principal Caroline Garret reportedly approached him about the hat and told him to use better judgment. Dodge then brought the hat to another training before the 2019-2020 school year.

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In court documents, 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.

He then filed a lawsuit against Garrett, the school’s HR officer Janae Gomes and the school district.

On Dec. 29, the appeals panel ruled in favor of Dodge and decided the school district failed to show evidence of a “tangible disruption” to school operations that would outweigh the teacher’s First Amendment rights.

The court noted that since Dodge did not wear the hat around students or in a classroom setting, his decision to wear the hat represented his beliefs alone and could not represent the school system, unlike other court cases.

Dodge’s lawyers also argued that there was “no general prohibition on political speech” when Garrett told Dodge he could not bring his MAGA hat to school, even adding that Garrett allowed a Black Lives Matter poster to hang in the library and sported a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on her car.

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“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 document concluded by saying “concern over the reaction to controversial or disfavored speech itself does not justify restricting such speech.”

In addition to ruling in favor of Dodge’s First Amendment rights against Garrett, the appeals panel found that both the Evergreen Public Schools and Gomes did not take any improper administrative action against him.

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

Dodge resigned from his position in 2020.

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