A teacher who claims he was retaliated against for exercising his free speech rights has officially been vindicated. A three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge’s ruling. They ruled that wearing a MAGA hat despite offending faculty members was protected under the First Amendment as a form of free speech.
Teacher Was Threatened With Discipline Because He Wore MAGA Hat to Teacher-Only Trainings
Eric Dodge, a middle school teacher from Washington, claims he was threatened for wearing a MAGA hat to teacher-only training sessions before the 2019-2020 school year. According to public documents, Dodge was approached by the principal and harassed when he wore the hat. The principal, Caroline Garrett, allegedly called him a “homophobe and a racist and a bigot and hateful.” When Dodge approached her at another time, Garret reportedly asked, “What is the f***ing deal with your hat?”
At one point, Garrett allegedly threatened Dodge with discipline over his choice to wear the MAGA hat.
“The next time I see you with that hat, you need to have your union rep. Bring your rep because I’ll have my own,” she told him.
Mr. Dodge subsequently filed a harassment complaint against Principal Garrett. The complaint was dismissed by the Evergreen School District, although Garrett was investigated afterwards and later resigned.
Eric Dodge then sued the school district and Caroline Garrett for “retaliation” against his right to free speech.
Appeals Court Ruled That Wearing MAGA Hat Was an Exercise of Dodge’s Free Speech
The 9th Circuit ruled that Mr. Dodge’s right to free speech was violated. The decision overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge James Robart that Garrett’s actions were not unconstitutional.
However, despite Eric Dodge’s vindication in the matter, the court did not reverse part of the prior ruling. Specifically, he could not sue the school district or Caroline Garrett for dismissing his complaint of harassment.
The Appeals Court panel was comprised of a Trump appointee, a Clinton appointee, and a Reagan appointee sitting by designation.
“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,” wrote Danielle Forrest, the Trump appointee.
The court added that Dodge’s First Amendment rights were determined by a two-prong test. That was “whether he “spoke on a matter of public concern,” and (2) whether he “spoke as a private citizen or public employee.” They determined that he wore the political slogan as a matter of public concern and as a private citizen. As such, he was indeed exercising his right to free speech when he wore his MAGA hat.