MAGA hat is protected speech, appeals court declares

When is a hat more than a hat? When free-speech issues are involved.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In an attempt at “less is more,” we’re trying out the Axios approach to working through some of the more “event-based” posts. Tell us what you think in the comments. — VFF

The Lead: The ninth-circuit court of appeals in January ruled in favor of a teacher who wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat to his school’s racial bias and sensitivity training. The court found that wearing the symbol of Trump America was protected speech:

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.”

Short Recap:

  • Dodge wore a MAGA cap to the event, took it off before things started and just kept it near him.
  • In response to complaints, the principal told Dodge to “use better judgment” in regard to wearing the hat. He wore it the next day and teachers started freaking out, texting the principal to do something about it.
  • She did, Dodge stated in court filings, as she called him a number of unsavory names and told him he was being insubordinate. If he wore the hat again, he was told, he should bring his union rep.
  • School board meetings, resignations and eventually the lawsuit followed, with Dodge winning the key point that his First Amendment rights were violated.

Key Takeaway: The bar for suppressing First Amendment rights in most situations is pretty high. The Amendment is there to protect ALL speech, especially the speech people DON’T like. Unless we’re talking about imminent threats or child porn, courts are usually going to favor the speaker, not the suppressor.

Doctor of Paper Hot Take: According to the professor who ran the event stated she was “traumatized” by the hat, while some teachers cried or complained that the hat “triggered” them. Really? A hat can do all that? And I thought the sorting hat at Hogwarts was amazing.

I’m sympathetic to people who feel speech has harmed them, which is why even though I support the concept of free speech, I find speech like that of the Westboro Baptist Church reprehensible. In this case, though, Dodge’s speech didn’t rise to the level of threat or obscenity. We can argue if he should or shouldn’t have worn the hat, but that’s ethics, not law.

Statistic of the Day: According to Trump campaign officials, more than 1 million licensed versions of the hat were in circulation four years ago. Add four years and the knock-off market to this and it’s impossible to imagine a world in which these people wouldn’t have seen one before.

CLASSROOM EXERCISE: Put yourself in the position of the principal or of Dodge and talk about how you might have handled this situation differently to avoid the lawsuit. Think  about ways in which you could balance the concerns some of the participants had with the First-Amendment rights of the individuals.

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