SPOKANE, Wash. — A student at the Gonzaga University School of Law is responding to a visiting professor’s July commentary piece on a student wearing a “MAGA” hat in his class.
In a piece written for the American Bar Association Journal, which caused a stir online and in the Spokane community, visiting assistant professor Jeffrey Omari details his reaction to seeing a male student wearing a red hat with “MAGA” written on it. The acronym is short for President Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.”
"From my (progressive) perspective as a black man living in the increasingly polarized political climate that is America, MAGA is an undeniable symbol of white supremacy and hatred toward certain nonwhite groups," Omari wrote.
Omari wrote later in the piece that he didn't believe the student was trying to direct a hateful message toward him and that he respected the student's freedom of expression, but that "his shiny red MAGA hat was like a siren spewing derogatory racial obscenities at me for the duration of the one hour and fifteen-minute class."
Gonzaga University School of Law Dean Jacob H. Rooksby issued the following statement in response to Omari's piece and the coverage surrounding it.
"The School of Law diligently works to provide a respectful and inclusive environment that welcomes all students, faculty, and staff. We respect the points of view of all members of our community. This situation presents an opportunity for our community to listen to and learn from each other," the statement reads in full.
On Wednesday, the ABA Journal published a response from Gonzaga Law student Austin Phelps, who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in law, economics and public policy from the University of Washington in Seattle.
Phelps is a classmate of the student who Omari wrote about in his commentary piece. He said he is not speaking on behalf of the student but shares his beliefs.
The student referenced in the original column did not wish to be identified.
Phelps said he wore conservative apparel, including a MAGA hat and Trump-Pence 2020 T-shirt, to Omari’s class.
“After reading his article, I understand why I was not called on with the frequency that left-leaning students enjoyed. The article creates a feeling of unwelcomeness from Omari toward students of different mindsets,” Phelps wrote.
Phelps later wrote that freedom of speech allows him to wear such apparel and “tell Omari that he is wrong, and that his interpretation of a MAGA hat is nothing but a grotesque attack on the politics of a student.”
In the column, Phelps describes a situation in which he wore a shirt reading “#BuildTheWall” to his internship on a day where he said no meetings were scheduled. He said he received an email from his supervising attorney requesting a meeting, where he said the attorney and a faculty member “expressed discontent” with the message.
“Instead of engaging in a meaningful dialogue regarding the reasons why I wear that shirt, the disgruntled faculty member put me in a position where I was at the mercy of my supervisor,” Phelps wrote.
“Mere days after this incident, law school faculty who direct my internship enacted a revision and began an effort to ensure compliance with the dress code to ensure that politically conservative T-shirts may not be worn. The revision added one sentence, which reads that no attire may be worn that contains any message or slogan,” Phelps continued. “What was a facially neutral policy revision, when considered with the circumstantial evidence, became a clear affront to the freedom of speech of conservative students.”
Phelps later compared wearing a MAGA hat to someone wearing a Pride pin on their suit, adding that the choice is not a “premeditated attack on those who oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, just as wearing a MAGA hat is not an attack on people of color.”
“Many Americans, when wearing the MAGA hat, do not have malice in their hearts or minds, they simply want to express themselves,” he wrote.
Phelps added that he does not wear the shirt because he is hostile toward Latinos. Instead, he said he believes in reducing illegal immigration while “expanding and streamlining legal immigration.”
“In bypassing me and going to my supervisor, the faculty member never learned this, and a discussion was not able to take place—the result of which could have been positive,” he wrote.
“Wearing a MAGA hat or any other conservative paraphernalia does not make me a white supremacist, anti-Semite, bigot or any other stereotype that may be misapplied. The purpose of wearing a MAGA hat is to identify as a supporter of Donald Trump and as a believer in conservative values,” Phelps continued.
Those values range from lowering taxes, improving the capitalist market economy, establishing Conservative justice on the Supreme Court and protecting Second Amendment rights, among others, Phelps said.
Phelps called his experience as a conservative law student “a struggle.” He said many faculty fall to the left on the political spectrum and some “inevitably take strides to not only push their ideology on students, but also to ensure that conservative voices are not heard in the conversation.”
“When liberals and conservatives come together in mutual dialogue, progress and understanding will result,” Phelps wrote at the end of the article.