A groundskeeper at Suffolk County Community College plans to file a $500,000 suit against his employer for barring him from wearing his "Make America Great Again" cap on the job at its Selden campus.
Salvatore Esposito, 47, of Medford, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, accused the school of violating his First Amendment right to free speech when he wore the cap during an April 7 open house, according to a notice of claim dated May 7.
"Make America Great Again," or MAGA, has been President Donald Trump's slogan, and the groundskeeper said he has seen employees wear political caps without incident, including caps with the names of Obama and Hillary Clinton.
"It cut me really deeply," Esposito said Friday. "I've seen men give their lives to this country, and being stigmatized, it just hurts me.
"It's not about money. My hope is that no one's First Amendment speech is violated, not just mine. Suffolk Community College is a public school. If somebody wants to wear their Bernie hats or their Joe Biden hats, fine. Wear it. I feel the actions of Suffolk Community College told MAGA supporters 'you're not welcome' there."
A college spokesman said the notice was received but declined to comment on a pending lawsuit. College officials had said they value free speech.
The notice of claim also names Wes Lundburg, executive dean of the Ammerman Campus. In an email to Esposito's supervisor on the day of the open house, Lundburg said the MAGA cap had been brought to his attention and that "political attire" is not allowed during work hours. "While the hat doesn't have a political candidate's name nor a party or logo on it, it has nevertheless reached the level of being a clear political statement," Lundburg wrote. "As you know, the college's policy is strict about these kinds of things."
Then in an email to Esposito two days later, Lundburg wrote that the MAGA cap wasn't being barred because of a "possible political message" but because "it is not part of your college uniform."
Lundburg declined to comment.
Esposito said he and fellow employees have worn caps without incident.
His attorney said the dean's emails clearly point to an infringement of the groundskeeper's right to political expressions.
"That's evidence to me that they know they violated the law, and they're trying to walk that back," said attorney Matthew Weinick of Melville.
Esposito said he served in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2006 — after exposes were published about the U.S. military's treatment of prisoners there. As a medic, he said, he and others tried to salvage the military's reputation and gave the prisoners good health care.
But when he got back stateside and told people where he had served, they looked on him as an abuser of Iraq prisoners.
The ban on the MAGA cap is the same type of stigma but against Trump supporters, Esposito said.
Using his GI Bill, Esposito said, he graduated from the college with a liberal arts degree in 2012 and now feels he is a rank-and-file worker being targeted by an executive.
Still, he won't be bringing the cap to work.
"I've complied with their wishes," said Esposito, who has worked at the college 11 years. "I can't afford to be disciplined."