Group files lawsuit against Governor’s School following controversial firing

RALEIGH — A lawsuit has been filed in Wake County against the state’s prestigious Governor’s School by the Alliance for Defending Freedom on behalf of English professor Dr. David Phillips following his “mid-session” termination in 2021. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is a non-profit based in Arizona. ADF describes itself as the “world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, marriage and family, and parental rights.”

The North Carolina Governor’s School is a summer residential program lasting four weeks for “gifted and talented high school students, integrating academic disciplines, the arts, and unique courses on each of two campuses.” Its operations are overseen by officials with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, N.C. Governor’s School Coordinator Rodney Allen, and Director Office of Advanced Learning and Gifted Education Sneha Shah-Coltrane.

According to the lawsuit, Phillips’ firing came after he spoke out about “the harms of the racially divisive ideology embraced by the school.”

The case summary says Phillips had spoken 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 Dr. Phillips delivered three optional seminars 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,” the summary says. 

Phillips had taught at the Governor’s School for eight years, as well as teaching English at Wake Tech and Guilford Community Colleges. In the lawsuit, Phillips also asserts there was “no appeal or other recourse” offered following his firing.

“In an academic environment committed to exploring a wide range of differing viewpoints, as the Governor’s School claims to be, no teacher should be fired for offering a reasoned critique of critical theory. But that’s what happened to Dr. Phillips,” ADF Senior Counsel Hal Frampton said in a press release. 

Frampton said there was “no lawful explanation for the way North Carolina public school officials treated Dr. Phillips” and that by firing him, “the Governor’s School violated his constitutional right to free speech and unlawfully retaliated against him for deviating from the Governor’s School’s ideological orthodoxy.”

North Carolina is an at-will state when it comes to employment. That means an employee can be fired at any time so long as it does not violate the employee’s civil rights enumerated in the N.C. Equal Employment Practices Act or federal laws like Title VII.

North State Journal reached out to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) about the case.

“Mr. Phillips was an employee of Governor’s School during summer 2021,” NCDPI Communications Director Blair Rhoades said in an email response. “The Department of Public Instruction maintains that it fully complied with all legal requirements. However, as this is a personnel matter, no additional information can be shared at this time.”

The 61-page lawsuit alleges that following the optional lectures, a group of students and staff members showed “open hostility, referencing race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion in their comments and questions.”

Phillips maintains he stayed after class to engage in discussion with students after the lectures. 

The filing also claims staff at the school accused Phillips of racism and made comments that “made it clear they believed the content of Dr. Phillips’ lecture was “worthy of censure.”

Phillips’ lawsuit is seeking his reinstatement, back pay, front pay, and a host of damages for pain, suffering, and reputational harm. The lawsuit is also seeking attorney and court fees.

NCDPI State Superintendent Catherine Truitt is not named in the suit.

The defendants listed in the lawsuit are former Deputy Superintendent and Chief Academy Officer David Stegall and former Coordinator of the North Carolina Governor’s School Thomas Winton.

Stegall left NCDPI in May 2022 to take the position of chief of staff for Blue Ridge Community College.

Current employees named as defendants include the Coordinator of the North Carolina Governor’s School and Site Director for the North Carolina Governor’s School West Campus Rodney K. Allen, and Director of the Division of Advanced Learning and Gifted Education at NCDPI Sneha Shah Coltrane.

Shah-Coltrane is the wife of Gov. Roy Cooper’s main education advisor, Geoff Coltrane.

By A.P. Dillon