Washougal man in ‘MAGA hat’ case settles with former principal for $400K

Judge ruled former teacher Eric Dodge's right to free speech outweighed principal's 'interest in preventing disruption among staff'

Eric Dodge, of Washougal, holds a "Make America Great Again" hat in a photo posted to Dodge's GoFundMe fundraiser.

A Washougal resident and former teacher has reached a $400,000 settlement with his former principal, whom he sued after she expressed concerns about his decision to bring a “Make America Great Again” hat to staff-only training sessions in 2019.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth District ruled in December 2022 that Eric Dodge’s decision to bring a “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hat to a training session on diversity and equity was protected speech under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Dodge, a former teacher for the Evergreen Public Schools (EPS) in Vancouver, filed a federal lawsuit against the district, Wy’East Middle School Principal Caroline Garrett and Wy’East’s human resources director, Janae Gomes, in early 2020, claiming “alleged retaliation in violation of the First Amendment,” according to court documents.

After the lawsuit was dismissed by the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in 2021, Dodge took his case to the appeals court, which ruled on Dec. 29, 2022, to overturn the lower court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit against Garrett but upheld the lower court’s ruling to dismiss the case against the school district and Gomes.

The appeals court stated that the school district failed to show evidence of a “tangible disruption” to school operations that would outweigh Dodge’s First Amendment rights.

“In sum, 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 has been presented,” circuit judge Danielle Forrest stated in her opinion. “Political speech is the quintessential example of protected speech, and it is inherently controversial. That some may not like the political message being conveyed is par for the course and cannot itself be a basis for finding disruption of a kind that outweighs the speaker’s First Amendment rights.”

“Therefore, Principal Garrett’s asserted administrative interest in preventing disruption among staff does not outweigh Dodge’s right to free speech,” the judge stated. “For all these reasons, Dodge has presented sufficient evidence to create a triable issue regarding whether Principal Garrett violated his constitutional rights.”

On June 22, Dodge reached a settlement with the Schools Insurance Association of Washington, a property and liability risk pooling program for school districts with enrollments in excess of 2,000 students, according to The Columbian, the Post-Record’s sister publication.

“Eric Dodge’s claims against Evergreen Public Schools and Jenae Gomes were previously summarily dismissed by the trial court. Mr. Dodge appealed that dismissal and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of both Evergreen Public Schools and Ms. Gomes,” the school district explained in a public statement. “The settlement Mr. Dodge reached was with former Evergreen Public School employee Caroline Garrett, not with Evergreen Public Schools or Ms. Gomes.”

Michael Estok, Dodge’s lawyer, told The Columbian that he approves of the settlement and reiterated that his client’s speech had been discriminated against.

“My client is very pleased with this result. This case was never about politics; it was about civility and fairness in the workplace,” Estok said. “And that if you are going to allow political speech in the workplace, you can’t limit it to just one viewpoint to the exclusion of all others.”

A difference of opinion

On Aug. 22, 2019, Dodge, who had been assigned to teach science at Wy’east for the 2019-20 school year, attended a cultural sensitivity and racial bias training session presented by Shameem Rahka, a Washington State University-Vancouver education professor, at Wy’east. Dodge wore his MAGA hat until he approached the front doors of the school, then took it off when he entered the building.

“I don’t typically wear a hat,” Dodge wrote on his GoFundMe page, “but just weeks earlier I developed some cancer spots on my head from the sun and was strongly advised to wear a hat while outdoors. So aside from my support for President Trump, I also medically needed to cover my head to avoid a worsening condition.”

During the training session, Dodge sat near the back of the room and placed his hat either on the table in front of him or on top of his backpack.

“He did not wear his hat during the training,” court records state.

Rahka saw Dodge’s hat and told Garrett after the session that she felt “intimidated” and “traumatized.” Several teachers who attended the training also complained to Garrett about the hat. One teacher “had cried, and another found the hat ‘threatening,’” according to court documents.

“There is no allegation that Dodge did anything with his hat during the training other than place it near him with his other things, nor is there any allegation that he did anything to interfere with or disrupt the training,” the records state.

Garrett called Gomes to discuss what could be done “without infringing or disrespecting anyone.” They agreed that the “best option was to talk to (Dodge directly),” explain the “reaction” that the hat had elicited, and give him “a heads-up that he was most likely inadvertently causing distress” and an opportunity to respond.

Later that afternoon, Garrett asked Dodge why he brought the hat to the training session, and he stated that he wore it to protect sunspots on his head and that he “like(d) the (hat’s) message” because it “speaks to everybody” by saying, “Let’s all do it the best that we can and be the best that we can be at whatever it is that we do.”

“Judging by her tone,” Dodge wrote on GoFundMe, “it was fairly obvious that she was not a supporter of (P)resident Trump.”

Garrett told Dodge that “some people (interpret the hat) as a symbol of hate and bigotry,” and that while she could not ask him to stop wearing it, he should use “better judgment” in the future. “Dodge tried to explain that he wore the hat to show that “(maybe) they’re not all bad,” but by the end of the conversation, he understood Garrett was effectively asking him not to wear his MAGA hat at Wy’east,” court records state.

Dodge denied trying to “engender some kind of response with the hat” by bringing it to a racial equity training session and “attempted to ‘talk politics’” during their conversation, but Garrett “shut it down,’” according to court records.

Dodge’s decision to bring the hat to another training event the next day elicited a greater response from teachers and administrators, including Garrett. The verbal altercation that followed led to a legal battle between the two sides that led to the resignation of Garrett in April 2020 and “devastated” Dodge, who had suffered a stroke two years earlier, according to a court disposition.