Is wearing one of those iconic, red MAGA hats (or really any MAGA hat or other mainstream political hat, for that matter) free speech, or is it something else? That was the question before a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit court recently and, fortunately for those with a MAGA mindset, the court ruled in favor of a teacher who was harassed by his boss for bringing a MAGA hat to teacher-only training.
As background, Eric Dodge was a middle school teacher in Washington who brought a MAGA hat to a teacher-only training session and then continued doing so even after the school’s principal threatened him with disciplinary action if he continued wearing the iconic hat. Reuters adding a few more details about Dodge’s story and how he and the Vancouver, Washington middle school ended up before an appellate court, noted that:
Garrett told Dodge that other faculty members were offended and that if he did not stop bringing the hat to school, “you need to have your union rep.”
The district dismissed a harassment complaint that Dodge filed against Garrett, but the local school board ordered a subsequent investigation into Garrett’s conduct that led to her resigning, according to court filings.
Dodge sued Garrett and the school district in 2020, claiming he had been retaliated against for exercising his free-speech rights
The 9th Circuit ruled that his wearing the hat was indeed protected free speech and that the mere offense taken by other teachers present at the training was not enough of a justification for violating his free speech rights under the 1st Amendment. It also ruled, however, that Dodge could not sue either the school district for dismissing a harassment complaint or the HR official who investigated the MAGA hat incident. Explaining the ruling in the decision, the summary of the ruling prepared by the court staff said:
The panel affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s summary judgment in favor of defendants in an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by a teacher who alleged retaliation in violation of the First Amendment when a school principal told him that he could not bring his Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat with him to teacher-only trainings on threat of disciplinary action and when the school board affirmed the denial of plaintiff’s harassment complaint filed against the principal.
The panel first concluded that plaintiff was engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment because the
undisputed facts demonstrated that his MAGA hat conveyed a message of public concern, and he was acting as a private citizen in expressing that message.
Continuing, the court staff then noted that there wasn’t any disruption caused by the hat, hence why there was no legitimate interest in the principal preventing Dodge from wearing it. In its words:
Analyzing whether Principal Garrett had a legitimate administrative interest in preventing plaintiff’s speech that outweighed his First Amendment rights, the panel determined that 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. 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. Moreover, any violation of plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by Principal Garrett was clearly established where longstanding precedent held that concern over the reaction to controversial or disfavored speech itself does not justify restricting such speech. For these reasons, the panel reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Principal Garrett.