FELIX Ngole was expelled from his social work course at Sheffield University for posts on Facebook expressing Biblical views on same-sex marriage and sexual ethics. Three Court of Appeal judges ruled yesterday that the university was wrong to expel him for expressing his views.
This is a landmark judgment for free speech and it will have important implications on many current and future cases on the rights of individuals to express their views.
The court ruled that ‘the mere expression of views on theological grounds (e.g. that “homosexuality is a sin”) does not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views will discriminate on such grounds.’
The university had taken a strong stance against free speech. It made clear that any expression of disapproval of same-sex marriage and same-sex relations – however mild – should result in a student being expelled. The university’s position was that while Felix was entitled to hold his views, he was not entitled to express them.
The judges in the Court of Appeal saw the significance of the university’s stance and said: ‘In practice, if such were a proper interpretation of professional regulation supported by law, no such believing Christian would be secure in such a profession, unless they resolved never to express their views on this issue other than in private. Even then, what if a private expression of views was overheard and reported? The postings in question here were found following a positive internet search by the anonymous complainant. What if such statements had been revealed by a person who had attended a church service or Bible class?’
In other words, the judges appreciated that the university’s attitude was tantamount to that of a Stalinist regime. If you express the wrong view, you risk your career. No matter if the wrong view is quoting the Bible or if it is expressed in a church. Even in a private setting you could lose your career if an informant tells on you. In Felix’s case he was investigated by the university because of an anonymous informant who told them about his posts.
It is extraordinary that a British university would consider that it is within its remit to ‘investigate’ social media posts on the basis of anonymous reporting. Felix was not posting as a representative of the university, merely in a personal capacity. He was interviewed by university ‘investigators’ nearly two months after the posts in question, which does sound like a totalitarian regime.
Further meetings ensued, and offers of a compromise solution by Christian Concern’s Pastor Ade Omooba were rejected by the university. The process resulted in Felix being expelled from his course and being required to disclose that he had been removed from his course in any future job applications.
The High Court ruled in favour of the university. It took the Court of Appeal to decide that such a Stalinist approach is a serious infringement of free speech, not just for Christians and not just for social workers. As the judges pointed out, this ruling has implications for all kinds of professions and for people of all sorts of religious persuasions.
It should never have come to this. The university should never have taken an anonymous complaint about personal expression of views to such lengths. Neither should it have fought this claim in the courts, wasting valuable resources in an effort to restrict free speech.
If it were not for Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre, Felix Ngole would be barred from his chosen career for life merely for expressing his views on social media. This ruling should send shockwaves through universities and employers throughout the land. Free speech is a precious right. No university or employer should seek to punish people merely for expressing what the Bible says. We need a cultural change of attitudes. I hope this judgment acts as a catalyst for such change.