The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Thursday revived a Washington State school teacher’s claim that his right to free speech was violated after his principal told him that he could not bring his Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat to training sessions and threatened disciplinary action. The court found that though some of the attendees at the training sessions may have been offended, the principal did not have a legitimate interest in preventing Eric Dodge from exercising his freedom of speech and was not protected by qualified immunity.
Dodge was a teacher in Vancouver, Washington State and had brought the MAGA hat to multiple training sessions in 2019, including cultural sensitivity and racial-bias sessions. He subsequently lodged a harassment, intimidation and bullying complaint against his principal after they had a verbal dispute over the hat. A third-party liability investigator tasked with looking into the complaint found that Dodge was denied his freedom of expression but that the conduct of the principal did not constitute harassment, intimidation or bullying.
Dodge then sued in a US district court for breaches of his First Amendment right to free speech. The court granted summary judgment against Dodge after finding that Principal Caroline Garret and a human resources officer were protected by qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects public employees who act reasonably within the course of their duties from litigation. Both were eligible for qualified immunity since Dodge’s hat had the potential to cause discord and his right to wear the hat was not “clearly established” by case law.
The appeals court instead found that Dodge has sufficient evidence of a trialable issue and that case law is clear enough that Garret should have known that she was violating Dodge’s rights, overturning the district court’s summary judgment.
Judge Katherine Forrest said in her opinion that:
Based on the long-established precedent of both this court and the Supreme Court, a reasonable school administrator at the time of the events in this case would have known that this was improper and the perceived unpopularity of a political view is not itself justification to prohibit protected expression.
The case has been remanded to the district court for further proceedings.