The popular author, screenwriter, and producer Nicholas Sparks, best known for his blockbuster romance novel The Notebook, is headed to federal court in North Carolina on Aug. 14, where he’ll have to explain some private writing that hasn’t been as well-received.
Apart from his literary efforts, Sparks is the co-founder of the Epiphany School of Global Studies, a private academy in New Bern, North Carolina “anchored in the Judeo-Christian commandment to Love God and Your Neighbor as Yourself.” He’s being sued by Saul Benjamin, a former headmaster and CEO of the school, who argues that Sparks hired him in 2013 and forced him to resign that same year for defending the very values that the school claims to promote.
“[T]he greatest fiction created by Defendant Sparks is the public image that he is somehow a proponent of progressive ideals such as diversity and inclusiveness,” Benjamin’s lawyers wrote in the 2015 complaint against Sparks and the school board. “In reality, the non-fiction version of Defendant Sparks feels free, away from public view, to profess and endorse vulgar and discriminatory views about African-Americans, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (“LGBT”) individuals, and individuals of non-Christian faiths.”
They argue that Sparks fired Benjamin for his defense of LGBTQ students and because he called the school and board members to task for the lack of black students and teachers at the academy. Lawrence Pearson of Wigdor LLP, who is representing Benjamin, tells Quartz that the evidence at trial will include emails Sparks wrote that show Benjamin “was terminated and forced out of his job by Mr. Sparks because he spoke out against bullying and hateful language against LGBTQ+ students, and would not toe the line on the passive acceptance of a near-total lack of Black representation at the Epiphany School.”
The novelist denies he discriminated against students from traditionally marginalized groups. In a June 17 tweet, written after the Daily Beast published a story about the upcoming trial, including damning emails he sent Benjamin, he explained that he was merely “responding heatedly” to a “rapidly escalating conflict” with the headmaster. Having told Benjamin that “there will never be an LGBT club at Epiphany,” Sparks contended in his tweet that he was simply advocating for the club to be created in a “thoughtful, transparent, manner.” In other words, he didn’t really object to the club’s existence but to the way Benjamin was going about creating it. “I only wish I had used those exact words,” Sparks wrote.
Now that tweet is also part of the legal record, and it will be presented as evidence at trial. Pearson believes the tweet is important evidence because “it concedes the impression of intolerance created by emails written by [Sparks] in the trial record.” By explaining himself on social media, Sparks was trying to correct the negative impression made by his prior email statements once publicized. But he, unwittingly, also admitted that Benjamin’s arguments are valid and that the emails Sparks wrote to the former headmaster do indeed seem discriminatory. “The tweet also contradicts and offers an explanation or interpretation of other written statements he made on the subject of LGBTQ+ inclusion, which is subject to examination at trial,” Pearson says.
Benjamin and his lawyers argue that the novelist not only discriminated against students of the LGBTQ community, and avoided recruiting black students and faculty, but also harassed the headmaster for his own Jewish heritage and Quaker faith, telling Benjamin that the Epiphany School’s influential parents “will not trust you because of who you are.” They say Sparks and the school board forced Benjamin to explain his religious views to school parents while they publicly “pilloried” him for his beliefs about God. In their complaint, they wrote that “the School harbors a veritable cauldron of bigotry toward individuals who are not traditionally Christian, and especially those who are non-white.”
The novelist has said that all allegations of discrimination and harassment made by Benjamin are unfounded. In June, he said the Daily Beast’s story about him was “not news.” Sparks insisted in his tweet that “Epiphany is a school where students and faculty of any race, religion, belief, background, or orientation should feel welcome.”
Indeed, Benjamin agrees. Everyone should feel welcome at Epiphany School. He claims that it was this principle that drove him to confront Sparks and the school board about its policies and practices. Where his argument differs from Sparks’ contentions is that he says that, despite his efforts to protect students from bullying and promote a more inclusive environment, Epiphany School authorities actually resisted living their stated principles.
Now, Sparks, who has sold 100 million copies of his books worldwide and seen many of them made into successful films, is surely praying for a happy ending of the kind he typically writes. But he is not writing the story of this trial alone, and real life is not a romance novel.
Correction: A prior version of this story mistakenly stated that Wigdor LLP represents Sparks. The firm represents Saul Benjamin.