- Caused an offense but not a disturbance, an appeals court said
- The teacher can sue the principal who threatened discipline, but not the school district
(Reuters) – A US appeals court on Thursday revived the allegation of a Washington middle school teacher that a school principal violated his right to free speech by threatening discipline if he continues to write a Make America Great Again (MAGA) – Wore a hat to training sessions.
A three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals said there was no evidence teacher Eric Dodge caused actual disruption by wearing the hat that endorsed former President Donald Trump to the teacher-only training in his Vancouver, Washington. School.
The red baseball cap with white lettering became a ubiquitous and divisive symbol of Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency. Dodge says principal Caroline Garrett called him a racist and homophobe and told him he needed a union rep if he wore the hat at school again.
The 9th Circuit, overturning a federal judge, said wearing the hat was protected by the US Constitution and evidence that some faculty members were offended was not enough to overrule Dodge’s right to free speech.
However, the panel said Dodge cannot sue the Evergreen School District for dismissing a harassment complaint he filed against Garrett or a personnel officer who investigated the incident.
Michael McFarland, a district attorney and the human resources officer, said they were pleased with the decision.
An attorney for Dodge did not immediately have comment. Garrett’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Dodge was a longtime teacher in the district when he brought the MAGA hat to training ahead of the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the decision said.
Garrett told Dodge that other faculty members were offended and that if he doesn’t stop bringing the hat to school, “you must have your union rep”.
The district dismissed a harassment complaint Dodge filed against Garrett, but the local school board ordered a subsequent investigation into Garrett’s behavior, which court records say led to her resignation.
Dodge sued Garrett and the school district in 2020, alleging he faced retaliation for exercising his right to free speech.
US District Judge James Robart in Tacoma, Washington, dismissed the case last year. The judge said Garrett was immune from the lawsuit because her alleged actions were not clearly unconstitutional and the school district had not confirmed any unlawful conduct by the principal.
The 9th Circuit revived the lawsuit against Garrett on Thursday, saying Dodge’s freedom of speech clearly outweighs the hat’s potential to offend its employees.
“That some may dislike the political message being conveyed is self-evident and cannot in itself be a basis for finding interference of a kind that outweighs the speaker’s First Amendment rights,” wrote Circuit Judge Danielle Forrest, a Trump-appointed person.
The panel included District Judge Michael Hawkins, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, and US Court of International Trade Judge Jane Restani, who sat on appeal. Restani was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan.
The case is Dodge v Evergreen School District No. 114, 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-35400.
For Dodge: Gary Manca from Talmadge Fitzpatrick
For the school district: Michael McFarland of Evans Craven & Lackie
For Garrett: Amber Pearce of Floyd Pflueger & Ringer
(NOTE: This article has been updated to include a statement by Michael McFarland.)
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