Classical Conversations, Cease and Desist, Legal Threats, No Talk
NOTE: This is part of a series that began with these earlier posts:
- Classical Conversations #1: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
- Classical Conversations #2: What Led You to Join a Classical Conversations Homeschool Community? #ClassicalConvMadeKnown
- Classical Conversations #3: Leaders Delete Comments and Block Commenters Who Don’t Toe the Line
- Classical Conversations #4: A CC Veteran Gives Advice to New People Considering Classical Conversations
This is the 5th article in a series on Classical Conversations (CC), a supplemental homeschooling program used by over 100,000 homeschool students. The next personal story is from April. We will read about her concerns and how Classical Conversations leadership, via an attorney, attempted to force her to silence by using legal threats. Throughout this post, I have interjected my comments in green font.
It is important to reiterate that the personal accounts told in this series are indeed personal. You may be participating in a group where none of these accounts sound remotely familiar. But if even one of these accounts is true (I believe them to be true), there is a problem. As it turns out, I am aware of several people who share a similar situation as April, and so I think people need to be aware that this silencing tactic used by CC leaders may be used against you if you share concerns, too.
In April’s account, there are specific titles of Classical Conversations leaders mentioned which may be unfamiliar to people new to Classical Conversations (in fact, I’m not even clear on the titles). In the interest of time and space, we will not define the titles/responsibilities – it’s just important to know that they are leaders within the CC organizational hierarchy.
Now, we move on to April’s personal story. ~Julie Anne
My name is April. In 2011, I was looking for a way to get regular social interaction for my then-2nd grader and toddler. I was familiar with the basics of classical education. After finding no negative reviews of the program, I decided to give CC a go, as it seemed to be a good fit.
The Community Years
I was in a CC community for 4 years. It was a lovely community, but like most CC communities, we weren’t doing everything exactly “the CC way,” and most of us didn’t even know it. I was a tutor (a classroom teacher) in my 4th year, and even I didn’t know we were “rebels.” (I did not sign a contract or NDA, though, as is now required.) I didn’t know we were considered rebels until CC recruited and hired a support representative (SR) from our community. CC hired a friend of ours and trained her to enforce their rules. And she tried. But we didn’t fall in line.
So, after several months of talks and meetings and mind-blowing spiritual abuse, we were essentially told, “If you don’t want to do things exactly our way maybe CC isn’t right for you.” So our entire community, save the new SR and her best friend on campus, left CC. In all, twenty-three families left. [The subject of spiritual abuse will be discussed more in depth later in this CC series.]
I was not devastated. We still had all our friends, but I was shaken up. I had listened to my former director and good friend sob on the phone to me after twice-weekly browbeating phone calls with our new SR and the area manager. I had endured personal tongue lashings for sending emails to my friends about how we should not have to suddenly do things differently because these women said so. We were like independent contractors, and we were delivering the product. We just weren’t delivering it precisely how they wanted.
And, I do mean “precisely”. We were dinged for:
- using print-outs in class when we were supposed to be handwriting everything.
- having the most basic of dress codes – a navy or white polo with any kind of solid color bottoms – meant to honor the church where we met.
- combining the messier science experiments and art projects.
- using a middle-school program created by a private individual, along with CC materials.
- not running things simply enough and within the time limits imposed for each subject to be taught.
When I asked WHY we needed to do things these certain ways, I was told that we were like children, and CC leaders were the parents, and that sometimes parents do things that their children do not understand but are for their own good. And, the children don’t need to understand. I was a PAYING customer and was compared to a child.
It was a level of control I found mind-boggling, and yet I know our community had it better than some. At least we stayed together even after we weren’t with CC.
The Year After: Sharing Our Concerns
Our CC families roughly went one of two directions: to an independent co-op that stayed at the church where our former CC community had been meeting, or to a university-model school/co-op hybrid. We were happy, but my confusion and concern about why things with CC had happened the way they did lingered.
I started leaving comments on blog posts about CC, just telling our story. This was how I found a Facebook group where some of the questions that had been plaguing me were being addressed. The group was called “Exploring CC’s Business Structure,” and it lasted a little over a year. In that group, I discussed what happened to our CC community and CC’s business practices in depth. At least 100 women from all over the country were sharing their own stories and concerns about CC.
The group was public, and the owner of the group consistently invited CC leaders to address our collective concerns. CC leaders who could accurately answer our concerns never chimed in, though we had been told many times they knew about our group. If you have never dealt with Classical Conversations, or if you have flown under the radar or never had many questions, you may never have experienced the evasion and secrecy surrounding almost every aspect of CC’s business and rules. But, if you have had questions, you know. You most likely hit a wall. The ultimate defense CC leaders use against questions is silence. [This is classic gaslighting. It is crazy making. You know you’ve asked questions, you know the leaders have seen them, but they act like they don’t exist. This puts you in an awkward situation where you feel the need to walk on eggshells and bring the subject up again and risk more gaslighting.]
So, we in our little Facebook group were left to speculate as to why the rules were what they were. I was pretty outspoken with my theories. No CC leader with any real authority ever came in to correct me or to explain away my theories. We were on our own.
Contacting Churches, Classical Conversations, and Threat from CC’s Attorney
I think I was already “on the radar” of the CC leaders, but I guess I didn’t seem very threatening until I started contacting churches.
It began when I discovered that my old home church, the church I had attended for over 12 years, had hosted CC’s summer conference called “Practicum,” and was planning to host a CC community in the fall. I was concerned. I wanted the church I still loved to know our story. So, I contacted my former pastor via email and let him know a little bit about our community’s story. I also added that Classical Conversations and nearly all of their communities are for-profit organizations.
My former pastor did not know this. He said he had been told it was “a group of homeschoolers meeting together.” I could tell he felt like he had egg on his face because the church had a strict policy against hosting for-profit groups of any kind. My former pastor said he felt fooled. They decided not to host a CC community that fall.
This whole experience was upsetting to me. I was thinking that surely my old church had known that CC is for-profit and had worked something out. It was appalling to me that they did not even know. I began to become concerned that other churches in my area may not know and could possibly go against internal church policy without really knowing it. I decided to contact churches in my area listed on the CC website to let them know that CC is for-profit. I was behaving as a concerned citizen and Christian informing churches of an easily verifiable fact: CC is a for-profit business.
I contacted approximately 10 churches one day, and then got on with life, planning to contact more later. I heard back from a few. Several said they no longer were hosting CC communities (though they were still listed on CC’s website as host churches). Others eventually shared that they also did not know it was a for-profit company.
Almost two weeks went by from when I contacted those 10 churches. One night, I let my former CC support manager, area manager, and regional manager know what I was doing. For all I knew, this was an issue of a local failure to train CC leaders to disclose the for-profit status of the group up front. So, I emailed them and expressed my surprise at finding out my former home church had not known the group was for-profit.
To my recollection and according to my emails, I never said to any church or CC manager that I was afraid that the church could lose its non-profit status over hosting a CC. I only mentioned property tax exemption specifically (NOT non-profit status) to CC managers. I never spoke of losing property tax exemption OR non-profit status to churches. That is an important distinction to note when you read the letter from the attorney below. I also wrote that I hoped they would train their leaders to disclose for-profit status to churches up front.
Less than a day after I sent the email to my former managers, the CC National Director over our area of the country emailed me. He said one of the churches I had contacted forwarded my “letter” on to CC. In his email to me, he noted that I was NOT a CC representative and firmly asked me not to “speculate” about CC’s business arrangements. I took this to mean he didn’t want me to contact any more churches. He also invited me to contact him directly if I had any questions about the matter.
Boy, did I have salient questions! I wrote back and asked two things:
- was anything untrue that I had written in the email to churches?
- could he assure me that other churches were not hosting CC’s without knowing it is a for-profit organization?
I did not receive an email back from the National Director. One week later, on June 4, 2016, the law firm hired by Classical Conversations sent me a cease and desist letter – a threat letter. The threat: stop talking about CC this certain way or we might sue you for an injunction to force you to shut up and/or for money.
Note: a cease and desist (C&D) letter and a cease and desist order are two different things. A C&D order comes from a judge or other agency with legal authority to tell someone to stop doing something. A C&D letter is simply a complaint of alleged wrongdoing sent to tell a person to stop doing it or the sender may take legal action. That is why a C&D letter is often called a “threat letter”. It’s just a threat. It has no legal consequence in and of itself. It’s often used as a scare tactic to try to stop a particular behavior without having to go to the expense and risk of actually filing a lawsuit. [C&D is a tool sometimes used to squelch any negative communication that reflects poorly on an organization.]
After receiving the cease and desist letter, because of taking care of an out-of-town personal family issue, I wrote a letter to the attorney saying I would “stand down while respectfully disagree[ing] with the accusations” made against me. I haven’t posted publicly until just recently again. Cease and Desist Letter follows.
Cease and Desist Letter follows.
Ward and Smith, P.A.
Deana A. Labriola, Attorney at Law
Wade II, Suite 400
5430 Wade Park Boulevard (27607)
Post Office NC 27636-3009
June 3, 2016RE: Cease and Desist Interference with Business Relationships and Interests, et al.
Our File 150219-00001
Please be advised that this firm has been retained to represent Classical Conversations Incorporated, a North Carolina corporation that you have communicated with and about on numerous occasions. This letter serves as a response to your prior communications with Classical Conversations and a demand that you immediately cease from spreading misinformation to others, including without limitation churches and individuals that have partnered with Classical Conversations, regarding legal and tax matters upon which you are unqualified to provide advice. [This attorney, on behalf of Classical Conversations, is stating as fact that April spread misinformation. This is not true. April clearly said that she told the churches she contacted that CC was a for-profit organization. The fact that CC is a for-profit organization is not misleading, but the truth.]
Specifically, it has come to our attention that you have contacted several churches throughout the State of Texas regarding Classical Conversations’ for-profit status and informed them that they may lose their non-profit status by partnering with Classical Conversations. [Note: April never said this to any church per her personal account above.] There is no legal basis for your assertions, which are simply inaccurate, misleading, and false. [Neither is there any basis for Ms. Labriola’s assertions. The narrative they are presenting is fictitious. In fact, it does not exist.] Further, you do not have the professional qualifications that would enable you to render competent advice regarding these matters. [What advice is Ms. Labriola talking about? I don’t recall in April’s narrative that she gave advice. Furthermore, anyone she addressed this to would reasonably come to the conclusion that April was simply an interested party, not wanting any harm to come to a church whose focus is the Gospel of Christ. What a ridiculous conclusion to make that she was acting as a professional and giving professional advice. She’s a mom, for crying out loud.] This applies equally to the information posted on social media regarding nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements. [Maybe it’s just me, but this screams to me that CC is afraid of what might happen to CC if the public finds out how they have conducted their business.]
You have also made numerous defamatory statements concerning Classical Conversations and its business practices and leaders, directing these untruthful statements towards Classical Conversations’ Licensed Directors, local members of your community, individuals on social media and state government agencies. [Once again, Ms. Labriola, on behalf of CC has accused April of making defamatory statements regarding Classical Conversations. I’ve been involved in a defamation lawsuit. I know what it means. According to the legal definition of defamation, they are accusing April of lying intentionally with the intent to cause harm (malice).] Collectively, these false statements [April’s statements weren’t false] have caused unnecessary and unfounded alarm among Classical Conversations’ businesses affiliates and state auditors. Your conduct has harmed and continues to harm Classical Conversations’ reputation and its ability to engage in lawful business activities. [This is called displacement. April is being blamed for “harming” Classical Conversations’ reputation; however, there is a very real likelihood that they may have their own legal issues and harm to deal with, unrelated to April, because of not communicating clearly with host facilities about being a for-profit organization using some non-profit facilities.]
Because Classical Conversations is a North Carolina corporation, your improper conduct and activities directed towards Classical Conversations may subject you to North Carolina law.
[They are attempting to be judge and jury here by claiming improper conduct. They can’t do that. Only the court can do that. The important key word they included is “may.”]
Under North Carolina law, it is unlawful to engage in conduct, such as providing misinformation, that causes an individual or entity to breach a contract or prevents an individual or entity from entering a contact it otherwise would have entered. It is also unlawful to make false statements that harm an entity’s professional reputation, especially when the individual making these statements lacks the professional qualifications to render such opinions. Consequently, your conduct may subject you to claims under North Carolina law for, inter alia, tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with economic advantage, defamation, and the unauthorized practice of law. These claims may entitle Classical Conversations to injunctive and monetary relief for the irreparable harm you have caused.
[Blah, blah, more legalese and threats. April didn’t make false statements, she shared concerns. Remember, the pastor with whom April spoke was surprised about the information she told him. Why didn’t the pastor know? I also spoke with a pastor whose church hosts CC. He, too, did not know this. I have a hunch if I got on the phone and called other pastors, I would get the same story. Why don’t these pastors know that CC is a for-profit business? Is it spelled out plainly in the paperwork? I would sure like to see the paperwork.]
Accordingly, Classical Conversations demands that you immediately cease, directly or indirectly through others:
- Communicating to individuals and churches misinformation or unfounded speculation as to legal and tax matters on which you are unqualified to advise, including without limitation matters related to the for-profit or not-for-profit status of Classical Conversations and the churches it partners with or may partner with in the future;
- Interfering with, or directing or instructing anyone to interfere with, Classical Conversations’ current and prospective business interests and relationships, including without limitation any and all relationships with its licensed directors; and
- Posting, writing, or communicating through any medium information concerning Classical Conversations that is unfounded, inaccurate, false, misleading, or defamatory.
In an effort to resolve this matter amicably, within five (5) days of receipt of this letter we request that you: (1) confirm that you will cease and desist from engaging in the activities set forth above; and (2) provide Classical Conversations with copies of any and all letters, e-mails, or other communications that you have sent to churches concerning Classical Conversations’ status as a for-profit entity or related legal and tax matters. If we do not receive such confirmation and documentation, Classical Conversations may have no alternative but to pursue the legal remedies available to it as a necessary means to protect its business interests which your conduct has irreparably damaged.
We look forward to your prompt reply.
Yours very truly,
Deana A. Labriola
cc: Mr. Gary J. Rickner
This is a classic conversation, alright; this is classical attorney-speak, but it’s attempting to have only one side of the conversation be heard. Conversation requires two sides. The cease and desist threat is intended to manipulate, scare, and squelch any conversation CC feels is threatening them (whether the conversation is true or not is beside the point). I’m glad that April has chosen to go public with this. Families involved in CC and those considering CC need to see the truth, and what may happen if questions are asked.
All CC had to do was simply send appropriate answers to address April’s concerns, but they didn’t. But wait . . . why would a company withhold information? Does it make sense for an organization to not want to discuss important tax information or other business-related questions? Something is smelling like rotten fish here. When I get the whiff of rotten fish, it only makes me want to dig deeper.
CC is behaving like a bully. Either they have handled the situation of their for-profit organization working with non-profit facilities, or they haven’t. If they haven’t, then they have a bigger mess, and no wonder they are using an attorney to try to stop the conversation April is bringing up. It’s quite simple to correct the misinformation if April has it wrong. CC has a public website and could address it there quite easily. The question is: why aren’t they addressing it? That should concern any new parent considering CC.
Update 7/18/18: It looks like the final revision I made last night did not update. It is now fixed. Both were in April’s personal account: a very minor edit in the italicized paragraph and the conclusion paragraph was left off entirely. ~ja
photo credit: Patrick Feller Jefferson County Courthouse, Beaumont, Texas 1805311219 via photopin (license)