Free speech in the UK dodges a bullet

Felix Ngole vindicated after a four-year fight to clear his name 

Australian supporters of Israel Folau will be heartened by a ruling by a court of appeal in the United Kingdom vindicating a Christian who posted negative remarks about homosexuals on social media.

Felix Ngole, a 39-year-old from Cameroon in a postgraduate social work course at the University of Sheffield, was dismissed in 2016 after a fellow student anonymously dobbed him in.

Ngole’s appeal against this decision rose from committee after committee within the University bureaucracy, but at every stage it was reaffirmed. They all found that Ngole should be excluded because he lacked “insight” into the offence which these remarks could have caused and because he might bring social workers into disrepute.

Ngole’s “offence” was similar to Folau’s. In 2015, in a Facebook discussion of same-sex marriage in the United States, he described homosexuality as a sin, based on the authority of the Bible. 
“[S]ame sex marriage is a sin whether we accept it or not” “Homosexuality is a sin, no matter how you want to dress it up” “[Homosexuality] is a wicked act and God hates the act” and “God hates sin and not man” 
were some of his posts.     

Ngole lost his first appeal to Britain’s High Court. Deputy High Court Judge Rowena Collins Rice ruled that the University’s decision, on balance, was reasonable.

Her reasoning was disconcerting. She found that Ngole had not acted in a discriminatory manner and that he would not intentionally discriminate. For most people, this means that he was "innocent". But, she contended, other people “might legitimately wonder whether he might discriminate”. This could bring the profession into disrepute. He deserved to be booted out -- because some people might wonder. 

Thankfully, three justices sitting as the Court of Appeal had some common sense and overruled Judge Collins.

The University failed to appreciate two matters. First, failing to appreciate that the Appellant’s apparent intransigence was an understandable reaction by a student to being told something that he found incomprehensible, namely that he could never express his deeply held religious views in any manner on any public forum. Second, failing to appreciate that a blanket ban on the expression of views was not in accordance with the relevant ... professional code or guidance. In these senses, it was the University and its processes which could be said to lack insight.

The justices cut through the fog of the University’s obfuscation and zeroed in on the central issue: “the University told the Claimant that whilst he was entitled to hold his views about homosexuality being a sin, he was never entitled to express such views on social media or in any public forum.”

In other words, the University of Sheffield was taking a totalitarian view of free speech. Its students could believe whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t express that belief in public – anywhere in public, even in a church.

the implication of the University’s submission is that such religious views as these, held by Christians in professional occupations, who hold to the literal truth of the Bible, can never be expressed in circumstances where they might be traced back to the professional concerned. In practice, this would seem to mean expressed other than in the privacy of the home. 

And, as the justices pointed out, this would also be true for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and members of other faiths who might have similar beliefs.

Much hung on the outcome of this case, not just justice for Mr Ngole. A chilling admission by the barrister representing the University to the panel of judges shows that Britain has just dodged an explosive bullet aimed at the heart of free speech.

LORD JUSTICE IRWIN: But it will be hard to make a distinction between social work, health visiting, counsellors, maybe police officers, teachers - particularly of teachers of those around the age of puberty. There is going to be a whole range of other groups who, if you are right, will be told by their professions, backed up by the courts: you simply cannot express biblical views about homosexuality in a way that can be linked to you.

MS HANNETT: My Lord, I accept that. I accept that. In those cases where their professional responsibilities have the kind of decision-making that we are talking about here, and are analogous to this.

If Ngole had lost, teachers, doctors, nurses, other healthcare workers, lawyers, police officers – just about everyone, in fact – would have lost their right to express traditional views about homosexuality, even if they were expressed in a church.

But in a key sentence, the justices clearly stated: “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 lobby group Christian Concern, which supported Ngole, has underscored the importance of the judgement:

This is the first Court of Appeal judgment regarding freedom of expression of Biblical views which sets limits on the rights of professional regulators to limit free speech on social media. The ruling is an authoritative statement of the law, likely to be relied upon in hundreds of current and future cases.

This whole affair reflects very badly on the University. It took nearly four years to settle the matter – and Ngole still has not been re-admitted to his social work course. The process is the punishment.

But it is heartening news for Folau and his supporters back in Australia. “This will send chills down the spine of Rugby Australia,’’ John Steenhof, of Human Rights Law Alliance, a Christian law firm, told The Australian. “Israel Folau and his team will be thanking God for divine providence.’’

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet


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