Virginia Teacher Fired Over Pronouns Still Waiting for Justice
Peter Vlaming loves languages—especially French.
His enthusiasm for the French language made him a beloved teacher at West Point High School in Virginia for nearly seven years.
But in 2018 he was suddenly placed on leave from his position. And then the school board fired him.
Not because of something he said. Actually, because of something he could not say.
Read more about Peter’s case below.
Who is Peter Vlaming?
Peter Vlaming has a passion for words.
But it was the beauty of expression in the French language that influenced the course of his life. “You see how language forms around ideas,” Peter says. “There are things that you can express in French that you can’t express as well in English.”
After being introduced to French in seventh grade, he fell in love with the language, eventually moving to France for 11 years and studying at the University of Paris. He met his wife in France and the two moved back to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 2004.
That’s when Peter began teaching French in public schools.
He had taught at West Point High School for almost seven years when, suddenly, he was disciplined and then fired.
This happened after Peter received the unanimous recommendation of the West Point School Board in 2017.
What happened? Well, as you can imagine, Peter Vlaming is a man of his word. He doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean.
West Point High School gave him an ultimatum: say things you disagree with or face termination.
Vlaming v. West Point School Board
In 2018, one of Peter’s female students decided to identify as male.
Peter went out of his way to accommodate this student. He said he would use the student’s preferred male-sounding name and avoid using pronouns.
But Peter simply could not use male pronouns for a female student because it would contradict his core beliefs. This was about more than just pronouns; it was about what pronouns mean. In speech, after all, pronouns identify us as either male or female.
Peter couldn’t in good conscience use male pronouns to identify a female student. At the same time, he made it clear that he wanted to work with the student by avoiding pronouns that may cause offense.
But that wasn’t good enough for the school district. It didn’t care about how Peter treated the student. It was on a crusade for conformity. It wanted to force Peter to speak words he disagreed with by using pronouns for the student—even when that student was not present.
The school district made Peter choose between speaking against his conscience or losing the job he loved.
It wanted to punish Peter for what he could not say in good conscience. And that’s unconstitutional compelled speech.
- Fall 2018: Peter was asked to refer to a female student he had taught the previous year by a new name and male pronouns. Though Peter did his best to accommodate the student, he could not use words against his conscience. He was placed on leave by the school board and then terminated at the end of the year.
- September 2019: With the help of attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, Peter filed a lawsuit against the West Point School Board for wrongful termination and breach of contract under the Virginia Constitution and Virginia law.
- September 2021: Peter asked the Virginia Supreme Court to take up his case after the Circuit Court of the County of King William dismissed it.
- March 2022: The Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear Peter’s case.
What's at stake?
Peter was fired not because of anything he said or did. Rather, he was placed on leave and eventually terminated because of what he could not say.
The school board demanded that Peter refer to a female student by male pronouns or face consequences.
That is compelled speech—and that is contrary to the First Amendment, and Virginia law. Not only does the Constitution protect our right to speak our minds freely; it also protects us from the government demanding we say things with which we disagree.
That is what’s happening here.
“This isn’t just about a pronoun, it’s about what that pronoun means,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “This was never about anything Peter said or did; only about what the school was demanding he say. Nobody should be forced to contradict his core beliefs just to keep a job.”
Peter’s and similar cases are important to protect our right to speak—or not speak—freely.
The bottom line
The government cannot force anyone to express ideas that contradict their personal beliefs.
Peter Vlaming shares his story with the Daily Signal.
ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.