In 2021, Dr. David Phillips was fired from the North Carolina Governor’s School for teaching a series of optional seminars critiquing critical race theory. Now, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction on Dr. Phillips’ behalf.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Hal Frampton, Senior Counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, to discuss Dr. Phillips’ case and why he should not have been fired.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Dr. David Phillips, an English teacher at the North Carolina Governor’s School, was fired in 2021 after teaching three optional seminars critiquing critical race theory despite glowing parent and fellow teacher reviews.
Dr. Phillips is now suing the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction for violating his free speech rights. Well, Hal Frampton, who serves as senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom is representing Dr. Phillips, and we’re grateful to have him here today to talk about the case. Hal Frampton, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
HAL FRAMPTON: Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be here.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Well, set the stage for us. What events lead to this lawsuit
HAL FRAMPTON: Dr. Phillips taught English at the North Carolina Governor’s School for eight years. Just to make sure your listeners are familiar, the Governor’s School is a residential summer program for the best and brightest rising high school seniors in North Carolina. It’s sort of an intellectual bootcamp. Selection is very competitive. Dr. Phillips taught there successfully for eight years.
Outside of the actual curriculum, the Governor’s School asks the faculty to teach optional seminars on any topic that they want, things they’re passionate about. Dr. Phillips taught seminars on critiquing concepts from critical theory and promoting intellectual diversity. He did that because he saw the way that critical theory was infecting the actual curriculum, and he wanted to provide students with an alternate point of view.
Well, after he did that in 2021, apparently a small group of faculty members complained about him, and the next thing you knew Dr. Phillips was fired in the middle of the session unceremoniously.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Did he receive any warnings that he was in jeopardy of being fired?
HAL FRAMPTON: That’s what’s really amazing about this, no, he didn’t. In fact, his faculty reviews for eight years running were absolutely glowing. He was thanked for providing these optional seminars until 2021 when, as I said, apparently there was this small group that took issue with it. No, no warning, no investigation, no asking him what happened or what he said. He was just thrown out.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We know businesses kind of fall all over themselves usually to make sure that they’re writing down everything and they’re going through all of the steps that are appropriate before they ever fire somebody. Why do you suppose that the North Carolina Department of Instruction thought that that was not a guideline they had to follow?
HAL FRAMPTON: Well, I certainly don’t know what was in their minds, but it is shocking and surprising and very out of the ordinary to let someone go like that without any attempt at even asking him what had happened here. And all he did was teach these optional seminars that he had taught many times before. The irony of ironies is that the night before he was terminated was literally on the importance of intellectual diversity and of thinking for yourself.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So talk about why you would consider this a free speech violation because teachers, we know, aren’t allowed to just teach anything. Right? So why does this cross over that line?
HAL FRAMPTON: A couple of things there. First, the — the level of the school matters a lot. At the college level, professors have a level of academic freedom that, obviously, you’re not going to see for kindergarten teachers, and this was a college environment. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is crystal clear that this is supposed to be college-level teaching. It’s for kids who are college ready, and they’re trying to simulate the intellectual environment of a university. Second, what’s really interesting about this case and kind of amazing is this isn’t about the Governor’s School’s formal curriculum. Dr. Phillips taught his English classes the way that he had for many years, and that’s not the issue here. It’s these optional seminars where the Governor’s School actually came and said to the faculty members we want you to teach about what you’re passionate about, what’s important to you. They created this sort of forum for professors to kind of teach about anything they want, and they do. There are optional seminars on things like drag culture, optional seminars on Marxism, on atheism, but Dr. Phillips does an optional seminar on viewpoint diversity and all of the sudden he’s fired.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Why do you suppose critical race theory and this viewpoint diversity is such a touchy subject?
HAL FRAMPTON: That’s a really deep question. What I can say is that when schools and colleges are what they’re supposed to be, when they are a true marketplace of ideas where teachers and students are free to debate and to talk and to test and to look at the evidence and to disagree with one another, to disagree with one another without anyone being disciplined for it, when it’s that kind of environment, good ideas rise to the top, bad ideas sink to the bottom, and that’s the way it should be. It’s always a bit of a red flag when people who are sort of the proponents of an idea want to shut down debate and discussion and say, oh, no, we can’t talk about that. If you disagree with that, you’re a bad person, or you’re a racist, or whatever. That strikes me as a pretty good indication that there’s a reason they don’t want to subject the idea to the marketplace of ideas and have it tested. That’s what we see over and over again in this field of critical theory, critical race theory, gender ideology, that any attempt at disagreement and discussion is just — just shut down.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And why is this a red flag for us? What are we in danger of here if we don’t challenge these kinds of decisions?
HAL FRAMPTON: Well, we’re in danger of indoctrination, of education becoming a system of indoctrination rather than a system of teaching children and young adults how to think for themselves, which is what it should be. It should be promoting critical thinking skills, not critical theory, so that our children can grow and learn and test and come to their own views.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Is this an isolated incident? And I’m not just speaking about critical race theory, but are we seeing this a lot here in North Carolina where these kinds of diversity viewpoints are being squashed?
HAL FRAMPTON: We’re certainly seeing it all over the country. We’re seeing more and more school districts adopt usually so-called anti-racism policies that push critical race theory, policies that promote gender ideologies that often keep parents from even knowing what’s being taught and what their children are doing at school, and that’s very concerning. That’s a national trend that we’re seeing and that we’re doing everything we can to try to fight against.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What are the legal issues primarily at stake in this lawsuit that he and you guys bringing, and could that case have some wider implications here across the State of North Carolina or possibly even countrywide?
HAL FRAMPTON: Yes, it certainly could. The primary issue is simply free speech, that teachers shouldn’t be fired for offering a different perspective on campus. That’s a constitutional issue. It’s a free speech issue. It’s a viewpoint discrimination issue because as we’ve seen in the North Carolina Governor’s School, Dr. Phillips’ views were not tolerated whereas views on the other side were not only tolerated but openly promoted. So that’s a core constitutional issue, and in terms of the wider implications, absolutely, if we are successful in this case, and we certainly hope and pray that we will be, then hopefully that would send a message and set a precedent to schools and colleges across the country that this sort of thing really does violate the constitution and that you can’t have a policy where conservative views, religious views, are not tolerated on campus.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: When you talk about Dr. Phillips’ views, did he oppose critical race theory, or did he just suggest there were two sides?
HAL FRAMPTON: It’s really the latter. He critiqued it. He offered another perspective on it. His goal when he teachers is never to indoctrinate. It’s always to present a view and to allow the students to test it and to think for themselves. He love classroom discussion. He loves it when students challenge him, and that’s what he did here. He simply presented a view for consideration, hey, here are some issues that people have pointed out with identity politics, with making judgments about people based on the color of their skin with the idea that there’s an intellectual monoculture in higher education, and he simply asked students to evaluate that for themselves.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You said there were a lot of these kinds of cases popping up across the country. What kind of outcomes are we seeing in similar cases?
HAL FRAMPTON: Well, a lot of them are still relatively new, so we don’t have all that many outcomes yet, but there have been some very good ones. So, for example, recently in a case called Meriwether against Hartop,we had a college professor who declined to use someone’s non-biological, preferred pronouns, and the college/state university tried to discipline him for that. And he was successful in vindicating that, no, that’s compelled speech. You have a constitutional right not to be forced to say something that you think is not true, that’s disconsonant with biology and the way that God has created us. So we are seeing glimmers of hope as we bring these cases.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What about next steps for this case? What are we going to see?
HAL FRAMPTON: So we’ve filed the case. We’ve served it on all of the defendants. Their initial response to the complaint is due at the end of next week, and once we have that, we’ll know a lot more if they’re going to file some kind of a motion that we’re going to have to go to court and argue over, if they’re going to answer and we’re going to start going through discovery and taking depositions and exchanging documents. We’ll just have to see, but that’s really the next sort of big thing is their response the end of next week. And that will sort of set the tone for where we go from there.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. Could this go away, do you think, that they could say, oh, we made a mistake? Does that happen?
HAL FRAMPTON: Sometimes it does happen, and we would certainly welcome any discussion they would like to have on that front. We have not received any communication like that so far, but we’re always hopeful, and the Lord has done crazier things than that, so we never lose hope.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, I understand that we have a North Carolina attorney, actually a friend of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, who is working with you on this case, Anthony Biller. So take this opportunity to tell us a little bit about how those partnerships work and why this network with local attorneys is so important to the work that you guys do there at ADF.
HAL FRAMPTON: So Tony Biller is a member of our Allied Attorney Network. We have a network of allied attorneys across the country. They are critical to what we do at Alliance Defending Freedom because they partner with us on cases. Sometimes they work on cases by themselves with some support from us, and they just really expand our footprint and allow us to do the work that we do because we don’t have a huge staff, so we rely on allied attorneys to keep carrying forward the work. And what they do is just absolutely critical to our success.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. And do you need more of these attorneys, and if someone is interested, what would they need to do?
HAL FRAMPTON: Absolutely. ADFLegal.org is our website, and we’ve got a way on there for people who are interested in being allied attorneys to apply and get in contact with us. And, yes, we are always looking for additional allied attorneys to grow our network.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Well, you mentioned your website, ADFLegal.org, but is that where we would go if we want to learn more about this case and all the good work that you do at ADF?
HAL FRAMPTON: That is exactly where you would go, ADFLegal.org. It’s got a page devoted to this case, as well as all of our cases. You can keep up with what’s happening and keep up with what we’re doing in all of our practice areas, free speech, parental rights, marriage and family, sanctity of life, all of that kind of stuff.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Wonderful. Well, Hal Frampton, Senior Counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
HAL FRAMPTON: Thank you so much.