Skip to content

Court allows fired NC professor's free speech case to proceed

Ruling rejects state officials’ attempt to dismiss Dr. David Phillips’ lawsuit challenging unconstitutional firing from North Carolina Governor’s School
North Carolina public school officials fired Dr. David Phillips mid-session without any explanation

RALEIGH, N.C. – A state court ruled Wednesday to allow a professor’s lawsuit against North Carolina education officials to proceed, rejecting the bulk of the state officials’ attempt to dismiss the case and evade responsibility for violating Dr. David Phillips’ constitutional rights. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represent Phillips, whom the North Carolina Governor’s School fired after he spoke out about the harms of the racially divisive ideology the school is embracing.

“Teachers shouldn’t be fired for fostering intellectual diversity on campus. The Governor’s School claims to be an academic environment committed to exploring a wide range of differing viewpoints, yet Dr. Phillips couldn’t express his views without punishment,” said ADF Senior Counsel Hal Frampton, who argued before the Wake County Superior Court on behalf of Phillips. “There is no lawful explanation for the way these public school officials treated Dr. Phillips, and the court has rightly allowed his case to proceed. He was beloved, respected, and well-regarded by both students and faculty as an advocate for students who felt that their voices weren’t being heard and their perspectives weren’t welcomed at the Governor’s School. The school violated Dr. Phillips’ constitutional right to free speech and unlawfully retaliated against him for deviating from the school’s ideological orthodoxy.”

Phillips was a well-respected English professor who spent eight summers teaching at the Governor’s School, a residential summer program for the state’s most talented high-school seniors. For years, Phillips spoke out against the school’s increasing adoption of critical theory, an ideology that views everyone and everything through the lens of characteristics like race, sex, and religion, labeling people as perpetual oppressors or victims based on group membership alone. After Phillips delivered three optional seminars in June 2021 critiquing critical theory and the increasing bias and lack of viewpoint diversity in higher education, North Carolina public school officials fired him mid-session without any explanation.

Over his eight years teaching at the Governor’s School, Phillips has encouraged his students to think for themselves and has notified the administration of the hostility that he and other students with “privileged” characteristics experienced. Phillips’ three optional seminars, which were open to any students or staff members who wished to attend, discussed (1) a social psychology critique of some concepts from critical theory, (2) understanding speech through the lens of speech-act theory, and (3) the increasing ideological bias and lack of viewpoint diversity in higher education.

Following these lectures, a group of students and staff members reacted with open hostility, referencing race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion in their comments and questions. Despite the hostility, Phillips stayed long after the conclusion of each lecture to answer questions, even offering to meet with students later for further discussion. The day after Phillips’ third optional seminar, the Governor’s School fired him without warning or explanation. When he asked why, he was told no explanation would be given, and that there was no appeal or other recourse. Phillips had always received glowing performance reviews without a single negative comment up until the point of the lectures.

Anthony Biller of Envisage Law, one of nearly 4,700 attorneys in the ADF Attorney Network, is serving as co-counsel for Phillips in the case, Phillips v. North Carolina Department of Public Instruction .

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

# # #