Can you be forced to use language you fundamentally disagree with? Many schools across the country are instituting policies to do just that, compelling teachers to use transgender students’ “preferred” pronouns even if it violates their beliefs.
Peter Vlaming, a former high school French teacher in West Point, Virginia, who was fired from his job for refusing to refer to a biological girl using male pronouns, is suing his old school board for violating his rights. He filed his suit two years ago this week.
Vlaming says he isn’t doing that out of spite or some vendetta, but rather to protect everyone’s free speech rights.
“I’m trying to protect their freedoms as much as my freedoms—the freedom of conscience, the freedom of speech, the freedom to hold your own convictions,” he says.
Vlaming and his attorney, Caleb Dalton from Alliance Defending Freedom, join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about the case and the implications of anti-free speech policies.
We also cover these stories:
- Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. Milley also addresses phone calls he made to Chinese military officials during the last few weeks of former President Donald Trump’s administration.
- Vice President Kamala Harris calls for national voting standards.
- Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issues a warning that congressional leaders have until Oct. 18 to raise or suspend the debt ceiling, or else risk defaulting on the U.S. national debt.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: Our guest today is Peter Vlaming, a high school French teacher who was fired in 2018 after he refused to use male pronouns when referring to a female student. He is currently appealing his case to the Virginia Supreme Court. Also joining us is Caleb Dalton, a legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom who is representing Peter in his case. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us today.
Peter Vlaming: Thanks for having us.
Blair: Excellent. So Peter, I’d like to start with you. We’ve covered your case at The Daily Signal before. Back in August 2020, you were the subject of a mini-documentary that we did that was covering your case. For those listeners who haven’t had a chance to see that documentary, I highly recommend it. But would you be able to briefly share the initial story with our listeners who might not be informed?
Vlaming: Sure. No problem. 2018, beginning of the school year, a female student, 14 years old, one of my students who I’d had in class for three years, she was entering her third year in my class, moving up the ranks in French. She informed me that she was no longer a girl, but a boy, assuming the identity of a boy, and told me what her new first name was, which I adopted. I adopted her new first name and she wanted to choose a new French name as well. I’m asking a French name.
As to not put her on the spot, I actually gave all of my students the opportunity to change their names. Every one in class had a French name. It’s part of a cultural lesson in French class. And so I gave them all an opportunity to change their names so that she wouldn’t be put … not on the hot seat, but be kind of called out, so to speak, and to ease the transition.
So we had a great rapport. She was an excellent French student. I loved having her in class until the day my school administration said that I basically had to abandon my belief that we’re integral beings and adopt a new ideology about who we are as human beings. In other words, transgender ideology, to—what’s the word? How can I put it? To believe it, to promote it. And I explained to my administration that I couldn’t do that, that I respected my student’s freedom to believe how she wanted, the freedom of her parents to believe how they wanted.
I explained to my administration how I was using the student’s new name, how I was avoiding feminine pronouns in her presence—which isn’t that hard, you just use the student’s new name—but that I would not pronounce masculine pronouns referring to her, that it wasn’t truthful and that I couldn’t do that.
And they came back and ratcheted it up a few notches, saying that, “Well, not only will you refer to the students using masculine pronouns in her presence, it’s even when she’s not present or no students are presence. Even if it’s just you and other teachers or administrators, you will refer to the student with masculine pronouns.”
And this is in writing. This was from an ultimatum from the superintendent, which said that, “If we think you are substituting the student’s new name for a masculine pronoun, if we think that you’re doing that, it will be grounds for your termination,” which is the definition of the thought police.
So I couldn’t agree. I couldn’t agree to their ultimatum. I said, “No, I’m not going to do that. I like this student. I respect her right to believe the way she wants. And I’m not here to provoke her, but no, I’m not going to adopt your point of view, or I’m not going to adopt her point of view and your point of view on this.”
Blair: I think that’s just shocking too that you had an alternative ready. You were going to use the student’s name as opposed to any pronoun to sort of avoid the issue at all. And they basically told you that was unacceptable on its face.
Vlaming: Which I was already doing. I was doing that from the get-go because she came to me directly. And I did that before speaking with administration. So that was already happening. And we already had a great rapport when the administration gave me the ultimatum.
Blair: And they decided to switch it up, right?
Blair: So Peter, you’re appealing to the Supreme Court after the King William County Circuit Court dismissed the initial case. And we’ll be chatting with Caleb a little bit about this later, but I wanted to get the more personal angle from you first. What has your experience been like with the courts and how are you holding up? And what have you been doing since the initial court case started?
Vlaming: Oh, wow. Those are a few questions there. Alliance Defending Freedom has been doing all the heavy lifting regarding the legal side. And I will also default to Caleb for all the legal questions. They’ve made the process relatively easy. They’ve been doing the work on my behalf as my advocates. That’s what they are.
And what have I been doing since—it’s been three years now. It’s been almost exactly three years since everything happened, so the fall of 2018. I finished a master’s in school administration that I was in the middle of when this happened. I found another job near my home when we were still in Williamsburg, but I apply to a few positions, French teaching positions. But since all of this happened, it’s just not a possibility. No one really wants to touch this with a 10-foot pole. So I kind of had to put an “X” on, at least for the time being, moving forward in the profession that I was trained for, which was teaching French and in secondary school.
Blair: Right. And we spoke a little bit at the top of the show, you are actually no longer in Williamsburg. Is that correct?
Vlaming: That’s correct. Right. And part of that, the part of the opportunity to come here, part of that is linked to not being able to move forward in teaching, teaching in public schools.
Blair: As tragic as that is that I think you were forced to leave and you were not able to teach French anymore because of this incident, I’m curious if you’ve received, Peter, any support in this time since your firing from the local community, either in Williamsburg or in France, where you are now. Have you had any responses from the parents or the students that were at the school that you were teaching at?
Vlaming: Huge support. I had huge support—students who truly came to my side and parents who came to my side to encourage me, to express their support. … Actually, at the school, there was a walkout that I had nothing to do with. I didn’t lead any of that, but the students led, but there was a walkout with the students. The day after my school board hearing they walked out and protested in defense of my position.
I’ve also had other teachers get in touch with me nationwide asking me advice or trying to use me as a sounding board for a situation, similar situations that they’re finding themselves in.
Blair: I think that’s wonderful that you’ve received some support from the local community. I think that’s very indicative that this is an issue that people feel very passionately about and that people are willing to go to bat for people that they support.
Now, Caleb, thank you so much for your patience. I very much appreciate you sitting and waiting for a question. So this next question is for you. You are a lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom and you’ve been working with Peter for a very, very long time now, as he said, around three years. What has it been like to work with Peter as his case moves through the justice system, through the courts?
Caleb Dalton: Well, I always tell people that the best part of my job is my clients and peers, no exception to that. The clients that we’re blessed to represent here at Alliance Defending Freedom are courageous people who are trying to live out their faith as God has called them to in the workplace. And that’s essentially what Peter did and he was punished for it.
It is shocking, I think, to a lot of people to kind of realize what’s going on right now across the country in many cases where you have the government coming in and saying, “You have to actually speak these words in order to be a member of our community. You have to. If you want a job in public service, you have to say the word. You have to say ‘he/him/his’ and adopt this ideology,” when tolerance is a two-way street.
And Peter reached out, as you’ve heard, he crossed the aisle, he did all he could to accommodate this student. And he really came up, I think, with a great compromise to be able to live in harmony. And yet, that wasn’t enough for the school board. They came after him. Tolerance, like I said, is a two-way street, but for the school board, it was really a one-way ratchet for them. They said, “Our way or the highway.”
And that’s kind of the importance of Peter’s case, is he’s standing up and saying, “Look, we can find common ground.” And in the United States of America, we shouldn’t have the government putting words in people’s mouths and saying, “You have to speak this message or be fired.” It’s unconstitutional. And we’re hopeful that the courts will affirm our position and allow Peter and other teachers like him to live freely and to live out their faith freely in their vocations.
Blair: As we mentioned earlier in the interview, you are currently in the process of working through the Virginia Supreme Court. You’ve appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court after the King William County Circuit Court dismissed the case. What was the legal rationale that they gave to dismiss the case? Why did they say that this didn’t register, that it didn’t work out?
Dalton: The court actually gave no rationale. The judge dismissed the case from the bench without any opinion or giving any rationale. So we can only assume that the court adopted the defendant’s arguments.
And we know one of their arguments, they attempt to say that their teachers basically have no free speech rights. Once you become a teacher, you walk through that gate—in fact, one of the administrators, the vice principal, told Peter in one of the meetings, she said, “Your religious beliefs end at the school door.”
It’s kind of ironic because the Supreme Court has said for decades and one of the iconic cases about free speech says that teachers’ and students’ rights don’t end at the schoolhouse gate.
So with no rationale from the judge, it’s hard to critique that, but we are hopeful that the Virginia Supreme Court will hear this case. It’s obviously important.
I’m sure a lot of your listeners have heard of the case going on in Loudoun County as well raising similar issues. Peter’s case isn’t really isolated. I think a lot of teachers are out there afraid this is about to happen to them as well. And we’re hopeful the court will take his case and clarify that for all teachers here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Blair: I’m really glad you brought up the Loudoun County case with Tanner Cross. At The Daily Signal, we’ve been reporting on this quite frequently, about the Tanner Cross case, which was a PE teacher was suspended from his job after he spoke out at a school board meeting against what has since been an enacted policy referring to transgender pronouns and bathroom usage.
My question for you, Caleb, is, do you see more of these cases starting to come up? I know you’ve mentioned that these are issues that are starting to crop up a lot more, but do you see these types of free speech cases coming forward a lot more frequently now that this is sort of in the national spotlight?
Dalton: We’ve certainly received a lot more inquiries of people reaching out to us, asking, “Hey, what can I do in this type of circumstance?” So it’s certainly an issue that is on the top of many teachers’ and administrators’ minds, a lot of people of goodwill trying to figure out, what’s the best [thing] we can do to accommodate?
And I know there’s been school districts that have adopted policies that are along the lines of what exactly Peter did, of saying, “Look, we’re not going to force anybody to use pronouns in a way that violates their faith, but use a student’s preferred name and we can come and reach a compromise.”
Some school boards have done that and we would encourage other school boards to take a look at those types of policies and realize, look, it’s not their role to adopt this type of ideology. That’s not what public education is about. It’s about education, not about ideology.
We’ve seen a broad rise in ideological education across the country as well in other areas. So it’s certainly a concern and something we’re hopeful that the courts will address and kind of balance and even things out in this trend toward logical education rather than factual.
Blair: And I’m glad you brought up that this is a trend that’s starting to come up because this next question is for the both of you, but Caleb, I want to start with you. What do you view as the stakes in this case? Obviously, there are long-term implications to school boards and school districts telling teachers they have no choice, they must refer to students by their preferred pronouns, they must [go] against their faith or against their better judgment. What are the long-term consequences of these types of policies? So, Caleb, what are your thoughts on that?
Dalton: The long-term consequences, I think, should concern everyone, whether or not you agree with Peter’s position or not, because it’s really about whether the government can put words in your mouth and force you to speak a message that violates your conscience.
So let’s say you’re a progressive and you believe, let’s say, climate change is a really big deal for you. What if the school board disagrees and they say, “Look, as part of your class, you have to get up and remind students every day that climate change is a farce and that oil companies are the greatest thing on Earth”? Well, you, as a progressive, would probably object to that, just as much as a conservative might object to me being required to say the opposite.
And this is really a fundamental issue. Like I said, courts have addressed this for years in other contexts. One of the most famous ones being the Jehovah’s Witnesses that objected during World War II to being required to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Now, I’m sure many in your audience who are patriotic—I have the flag right here behind me in my video. I love our country and I love what we’ve stood for as America, becoming a more perfect union as our stated goal. But what the government was doing was compelling students and teachers to say an ideological political message of saying, “Yes, we support the United States.” And as much as we love that message, that’s not the government’s role.
And that’s what’s at stake in this case, is, can the government force students, can the government force teachers to promote an ideological message in the classroom that’s completely separate from what they’re supposed to be teaching in the classroom?
Vlaming: And I don’t think people see how totalitarian this is, especially with the whole pronoun issue. And Douglas, you speak a second language, so you’ve studied second languages. Pronouns—you never use a third person personal pronoun when you’re speaking to someone. I never say, “Hi, Douglas, how is he doing today?” I say, “How are you doing today?” So asking someone to adopt their pronouns is telling someone to adopt their point of view and to abandon whatever other point of view you may have.
So adopting someone’s pronouns is about getting you to conform to one way of thinking. It’s actually taking the language away from you. You’re not going to even have the opportunity to think differently about this question about who we are as human beings, you’re just going to use the language … where you fall in the line, and in the name of being kind and loving and respectful.
Blair: I think that’s so fascinating that you’ve mentioned that, that it’s not this idea that you’re doing this for bad reasons. It’s, you’re doing this because in the name of doing kindness and all the things, you’re willing to come to a common conclusion. You talked at the beginning of the interview about using the student’s name as opposed to the pronouns because that was a middle ground that you could find.
Peter, I’m curious, if you were to be in the room, for example, if somebody who was a transgender activist or who was in favor of these policies was sitting in the room with us and they asked you, “Well, why are you doing this? What are you getting out of this?” What would you say to them and how would you respond?
Vlaming: I’m trying to protect their freedoms as much as my freedoms: the freedom of conscience, the freedom of speech, the freedom to hold your own convictions. We just talked about this, where this goes is enforcing a point of view and enforcing compliance and posting adherence to one point of view. So if there was a transgender activist in the room, I’d say, “Well, I’m taking the stand for you too, for you too so that you have the freedom to believe how you want to believe.”
Blair: I think that’s really good. That’s a good way to look at it.
We’re running a little low on time, but Peter, I would like to ask you one last question. What advice do you have for other educators who might be faced with these types of predicaments themselves? If a school is asking them to go against their beliefs, go against their values, how do you advise them to respond or to act or to go about their life?
Vlaming: Sometimes doing the right thing costs something. And sometimes it’s not popular to do what’s right.
Now, I’m not saying that, therefore, go and use your lectern as a teacher to teach on this subject, to come in and give your point of view and say why it’s right as a teacher, kind of abusing your place as a teacher to give your point of view on the subject that, at least in my case, was not a part of my curriculum.
But at the same time to know that if you’re going to be truthful, if you’re going to not just go along with, let’s face it, a totalitarian tide, it’s very likely going to cost you something and just keep that in mind.
Blair: I think that’s really good, solid advice. Well, that was Peter Vlaming, a high school French teacher who was fired in 2018 after he refused to use male pronouns when referring to a female student. Also with him was Caleb Dalton, a legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom who is representing Peter in his case. Caleb, thank you so much. And Peter, “merci beaucoup.”
Vlaming: “Avec plaisir.”
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