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A Court Has to Confirm that Wearing a MAGA Hat is Free Speech

There’s a mid-sized city named Vancouver that sits on Washington State’s side of its border with Oregon and is a suburb of Oregon’s largest city, Portland. In 2019, Eric Dodge, a teacher at Wy’east Middle School, located in Vancouver and a 17-year veteran of Washington’s Evergreen School District, of which the school is part, attended a racial bias and cultural sensitivity training a week before classes were to begin. To clarify, there were no students present.

Dodge arrived at the school wearing a MAGA hat, you know, the red baseball cap bearing the white lettering “Make America Great Again” (albeit in block letters) printed on the front, which was originated by Donald Trump and synonymous with his political rise in 2015 and continues to the present. But Dodge removed the hat once he entered the building, and had it in front of him and/or in his backpack during the training.

School principal Caroline Garrett confronted Dodge, using profane language that dignity indicates cannot be printed here. But these other words can: ‘racist’, ‘bigot’, ‘homophobe’, ‘liar’, and ‘hateful person’. Those were the choice adjectives Garrett used to berate her employee, for wearing a hat that whose literal message not only isn’t obscene, but which has been used throughout America’s political history. Let’s not forget that in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s slogan was almost identical: “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Reagan, you know, the guy who won two landslide terms and is widely regarded as one of America’s finest presidents, and is undoubtedly among the most popular.

Before continuing with the story, it’s important to make a vital distinction: just because owning and wearing a MAGA hat certainly doesn’t mean the wearer is any of those awful adjectives – in fact, the overwhelming majority of MAGAns are not – doesn’t make it appropriate.

For example, I own several MAGA hats, in different styles and colors. I bought the first as a historical relic of the times, even before I thought Trump was going to win the White House. Later, I added more to the collection. In fact, I was the first to create a MAGA hat with “Make America Great Again” embossed in Greek (with the more appropriate ‘σπουδαία’ for ‘great’ instead of ‘μεγάλη’,) to give to several Greek members of Trump’s team (and one for him), at Trump’s first Greek Independence event at the White House, on March 24, 2017.

But I’ve never worn any of my MAGA hats in public, except to Trump rallies or other Republican events. Sure, partly so that some nutcase doesn’t try to suckerpunch me, but mainly so as not to offend anyone. For the same reason, I wouldn’t wear a t-shirt that states: “the only way to be saved from eternal damnation is through Jesus.”

Garrett’s goal, to prevent Dodge from creating tension because of his highly-politicized hat, was overwhelmed by her caustic language and abrasive, confrontational behavior. Tone superseding substance – why, that was positively Trumpian of her!
The District asked for Garrett’s resignation – apparently Dodge wasn’t the first victim of her unhinged tirade. (In fairness to Garrett, we don’t know if her outburst was exclusively based on Dodge’s hat.)

Dodge ultimately complained to the District about the hat ban violating his First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and expression, and cited other damages, the veracity of which are irrelevant to the legal issue. But after the District disregarded him, Dodge sued. The lower court apparently doesn’t understand the First Amendment either, and ruled in the District’s favor but, thankfully, the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals reversed the decision and confirmed that prohibiting someone to wear a MAGA hat is in fact a First Amendment violation.

The saddest part of all of this is that it took a federal appeals court to issue a judicial edict. By the way, if Dodge had worn a Black Lives Matter hat instead, I’d bet the proverbial ranch there wouldn’t be many principals or districts around Portland who would’ve raised the issue, but the same standard would apply: on its face, that message is also benign, but in our highly polarized society it’s more collegial and empathetic not to wear it in a public place where there’s likely diversity of opinion, but you’re constitutionally protected in doing so.

Same with the clowns at Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, which I attended, who rudely booed Hillary Clinton when her name was announced. When some turned around and looked at them in disdain, all they could reply was “freedom of speech!” Yup, they’re right: the U.S. Constitution safeguards a person’s right to be a jerk.

My research did not reveal whether Dodge and/or Garrett ever completed that training. Because if it was any good – which is not a given; I’ve seen some of those – they sure could’ve used it.

Portland, incidentally, was one of the cities under siege in the summer of 2020, with parts of it overtaken by domestic terrorists outraged over George Floyd’s murder. The January 6 Capitol invaders were domestic terrorists too, and integrity and intellectual honesty demand that we condemn both groups equally, and distinguish them from their respective larger sets of peaceful protesters.

I don’t know who the new principal at Wy’east is now, but I sure hope that s/he leads like an educator ought to: creating a respectful environment, maintaining a civil tone in disagreement, and encouraging all employees – particularly teachers – not to wear their political hearts on their sleeves, or on their heads, in the classroom.

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, Dodge is white. Predictably, so is Garrett (most irrational woke people tend to be).

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