The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A teacher took a MAGA hat to training. It was protected speech, court says.

(Cassidy Araiza for The Washington Post)
4 min

It was the week before school started at Wy’east Middle School in 2019, and teacher Eric Dodge was on his way there for a training on racial bias and cultural sensitivity.

Dodge, who was slated to teach sixth-grade science at the Vancouver, Wash., school, headed to the building’s front doors and, as he walked toward them, took off his red hat — a “Make America Great Again” cap, according to a court document.

He did not wear the hat — known as a symbol of support for former president Donald Trump — during the training, instead placing it in front of him or near his backpack, the document says.

But the cap caused other teachers at the training — including the Washington State University professor leading it — to express concerns about Dodge possessing it, the document alleges. The issue spiraled.

Ultimately, the events of that week led to the Wy’east Middle School principal resigning and to Dodge pursuing legal recourse. Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Dodge’s favor, deciding that displaying the hat as he did was speech protected by the First Amendment.

The appeals panel determined that “while some of the training attendees may have been outraged or offended by [Dodge’s] political expression, no evidence of actual or tangible disruption to school operations had been presented.”

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In a GoFundMe he set up in 2021 to help pay for an attorney, Dodge said he was suing to “fight back and stand up for what I believe in.”

“I spent 17 years teaching and coaching kids in The Evergreen School District that we were living in the land of the free, and day in and day out I told those same kids to stand up for what they believe in,” Dodge wrote. “For that reason I am fighting back and practicing what I preach.”

An attorney for Dodge did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment late Wednesday.

When Dodge first brought the hat with him to the racial bias and cultural sensitivity training, a few teachers and the session’s leader complained to Caroline Garrett, who was the middle school’s principal at the time, according to the appeals court document.

The professor who led the training told Garrett she felt “intimidated and traumatized” after seeing the MAGA hat. One teacher cried, the document said, and another said the hat was “threatening.”

After talking with a human resources officer at the school, Garrett spoke with Dodge.

Dodge told her the hat was to protect sunspots on his head, according to the document. He added that he believed the hat’s message “speaks to everybody.”

In response, Garrett told him that some people saw it as a “symbol of hate and bigotry” and that he should use “better judgment,” the document alleges.

The next day, Dodge brought the hat again.

He wore the hat until entering the school for another teacher training day. According to the court document, a teacher saw the hat and texted Garrett.

And after consulting with the human resources officer again, Garrett decided to speak with Dodge a second time and asked him to not bring the hat into training because it was causing “disruption to staff,” the document alleges.

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Later that day when the pair spoke, Dodge alleges that Garrett called him a “homophobe and a racist and a bigot and hateful,” the document says. It also states that the principal thought that continuing to bring the hat was “insubordination,” and she asked Dodge to have his union representative with him the next time he had the MAGA hat.

Dodge filed a harassment complaint against Garrett, which was later dismissed by the school board.

But Evergreen Public Schools had previously known about complaints from parents about Garrett, the document says. The district conducted an investigation into her encounters with Dodge, and the school board gave her a choice between resigning and accepting a demotion or facing disciplinary proceedings.

She chose to resign.

An attorney for Garrett did not respond to The Post’s request for comment late Wednesday.

In 2020, Dodge sued Garrett, the human resources officer and the school district for “retaliating against him for engaging in protected political speech,” the document says.

The Dec. 29 appellate ruling partially reversed a previous summary judgment from district court that was in favor of Garrett. The appeals panel said while Garrett “also had First Amendment rights” during her conversations with Dodge, she “may not use her position of authority” to retaliate for expression.

The ruling upheld other judgments in favor of the district and the HR officer. The two parties are “very pleased” with the recent ruling and are “happy to have this matter behind them,” their attorney, Michael McFarland, said in a statement.