A judgement for free speech

The High Court has just overturned a decision to uphold Felix Ngole’s expulsion from Sheffield University for voicing Biblical views on on Facebook. The judgment means that Christians have the right to express their religious beliefs on social media, and elsewhere in public, without fear of damaging their professional careers. Christian Concern report:

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 hundred of current and future cases.

Ngole was expelled from Sheffield University and stopped from completing a postgraduate social work qualification – being deemed to have brought the profession into disrepute at a Fitness to Practice hearing – after quoting Bible verses on Facebook that were deemed critical of homosexuality. You can read the specific details of the case here.

Christian Concern state:

In the court hearings, the University argued that Felix had ‘lacked insight’ into the effect of his posts on social media. During his Fitness to Practice hearing, the University had told him that the expression of his Christian views was unacceptable and was effectively told either to renounce his faith or stay silent on pain of losing his career. Yet Felix says he felt he could not surrender his faith.

In some shocking exchanges from the High Court hearing, the University of Sheffield implied that Felix was not allowed to express the Christian viewpoint on same-sex marriage or homosexuality on any public forum, including in a church.

However, the Court of Appeal held that it was the university that was ‘lacking insight’ in not understanding a Christian viewpoint.

The Court of Appeal rejected the position of the university that would lead to people living in fear of private expressions of views being overheard and anonymously reported. They ruled: ‘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.‘ This was further compounded by the fact that nobody could show any evidence of Mr Ngole acting in a discriminatory manner.

This result is genuinely good news for Christians and similarly good news for all who think free speech to be important. The judgement means that public statements of religious belief will not automatically be assumed to be discriminatory. Further it means social media posts will not necessarily be a ground for professional dismissal. Moreover, comments made on social media will not be able to be used as a means to silence viewpoints with which others disagree. This ruling sets a clear boundary that professional organisations cannot discriminate against those who publicly express their religious beliefs, even if those beliefs do not accord with wider social mores.

This judgement is to be welcomed by all who believe in the right to free expression. It is to be welcomed by all those who believe that we need a diverse workforce, rather than just those who uphold prescribed state orthodoxy. This is a ruling that insists discriminatory action is wrong – whether by professionals or their ruling body – but that sharing beliefs and opinions outside of the workplace is not. It will act as a protection upon all who would voice an opinion.