A California teenager was prohibited from wearing her “Make America Great Again” hat in school, so she’s suing the school district.
Maddie Mueller, a senior at Clovis North High School in Fresno, claims the school violated her First Amendment rights by forbidding her from wearing the hat on campus. Mueller was planning on wearing the hat as part of a demonstration by a group called the Valley Patriots, which asked members to wear MAGA gear on February 20, according to a local CBS affiliate.
The school cited the dress code, which states that students can’t wear certain logos on campus, as the reason why she couldn’t wear the hat, the news outlet reported. But Mueller claims that “MAGA” isn’t a logo, it’s a political statement.
“To my knowledge, Trump is not a logo. It’s a last name. It’s just our president, you can’t claim the president is a logo, sports team, or affiliated with any gang,” Mueller said. “How is being a patriot in trying to show pride in your country — how is that inappropriate?”
It may seem odd that a high schooler who may not be old enough to vote, and who certainly wasn’t old enough to vote for Trump in 2016, feels so strongly about her right to wear a MAGA hat in school. But as Hilary George-Parkin wrote for Racked in 2017, MAGA hats aren’t just a political symbol; they’ve become a form of adolescent rebellion. The red caps have become ubiquitous in Washington, DC, but they’re rarely worn by locals, the overwhelming majority of whom didn’t vote for Trump. Instead, the hats are often worn by teens and preteens who are in town for a school trip.
For some teenagers — as well as for some adults, including Kanye West, who has donned a MAGA hat on several occasions and once said it made him feel like “Superman” — MAGA hats are a symbol of rebellion, albeit an arguably regressive type. The MAGA hat is a reaffirmation of so-called traditional American values in an era that critics claim has become too politically correct. MAGA hats are loaded with so much meaning that they were named the 2016 Symbol of the Year by Stanford’s Symbolic Systems program, which cited the hats’ widespread recognition and “effective distillation” of Trump’s campaign into a single accessory.
All of which brings us back to Clovis North’s MAGA hat ban. While Mueller claims the school is violating her right to free expression by prohibiting her from wearing the hat, school officials maintain that they don’t have a problem with her politics; they’re just trying to prevent on-campus disruptions. “Bottom line for us is the dress code is for kids to feel safe at school and free of distractions so they can focus on learning,” Kelly Avants, the chief communication officer for the Clovis Unified School District, told the CBS affiliate.
As the Washington Post notes, First Amendment rights are not absolute, especially in public school districts where students have all kinds of limits placed on what they can do, wear, and say on campus. In 2014, a different California school was sued for forbidding students from wearing American flag apparel on Cinco de Mayo, claiming it could lead to “substantial disruptions because of previous altercations.” A court upheld the ban. But last year, an Oregon school was forced to pay a $25,000 settlement to a student who was suspended for wearing a shirt supporting the proposed border wall.
More often than not, though, school dress codes punish students from marginalized backgrounds, not students who try to express their political views on campus. As Nadra Nittle wrote for Vox, public schools across the country have dress codes that body-shame girls — in one case, a student was forced to wear a literal “shame suit” with the phrase “dress code violation” emblazoned across the chest because the school said her dress was too short — and disproportionately target girls of color, trans and gender nonconforming students, and girls with curvier body types. In those cases, students are largely being targeted for who they are, not for what they wear.
Given this context, a MAGA hat could also be interpreted as disruptive or distracting. School dress codes are designed to minimize disruptions, but Mueller’s lawsuit clearly made her hat a bigger one than they’d planned for.