by Mithran Samuel & Luke Stevenson
A social work student removed from his course following anti-gay Facebook posts has lost a judicial review against the university’s decision.
Felix Ngole was removed from a master’s social work degree at Sheffield University last year following an internal fitness to practise process, triggered by numerous Facebook posts he made defending Kim Davis, an American registrar who was jailed for refusing to give gay couples marriage licenses on grounds of faith.
During the online discussion he labelled homosexuality “a sin, no matter how you want to dress it up”.
Last week, a judge ruled that the university had acted lawfully in removing Ngole under fitness to practise (FTP) proceedings validated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and based on its standards and guidance for students.
The university’s FTP panel found that, in posting his views publicly, Ngole had breached requirements to keep high standards of personal conduct and make sure his behaviour did not damage public confidence in the profession. He had also given no evidence that he would refrain from presenting his views in the same way in future.
Ngole appealed to a higher ‘appeals committee’ in the university, which upheld the FTP panel’s decision, and said that his removal from the course was proportionate because of the lack of insight he had shown into his actions.
In the judicial review, Ngole challenged the appeals commiteee’s decision on the basis it was an “unlawful interference” with his rights to free speech and freedom of religion under the European Convention on Human Rights, and that the decision was “arbitrary and unfair in substance – in effect public law irrationality”.
In rejecting the appeal, Judge Rowena Collins Rice said that there had been no interference with Ngole’s freedom of religion and that the university’s interference with his freedom of expression had been lawful in so far as it accorded with the HCPC’s and the university’s standards. It was also in pursuit of legitimate aims – ensuring that public confidence in the profession was maintained and that service users were treated with dignity and without discrimination, and perceived to be so treated – and proportionate.
The judge said that the university was not concerned about the religious content of the posts but the fact that they could be accessed by people, including service users, “who would perceive them as judgemental, incompatible with service ethos, or suggestive of discriminatory intent”.
“Whatever the actual intention was, it was the perception of the posting that would cause the damage. It was reasonable to be concerned about that perception,” she added.
Beyond the postings, the judge said the university was even more concerned by the fact that Ngole appeared to deny the possibility that they would be perceived as discriminatory or that such a perception should be taken seriously. Instead, he seemed to think that he was exercising personal freedoms in a way that was none of the university’s business.
Judge Rice said: “Social workers have to deal with how people will actually react to it in real life, and express themselves accordingly. That is not about a ‘blanket ban’, or about stifling religious speech or about denouncing faith; it is about seeing the world as others see it, and making the connection between what you say and the provision of public services in sensitive and diverse circumstances.
“Trainee social workers have to satisfy their supervisors that they understand this, and are if necessary working hard at it. That requires a reflective and proactive response to concerns being raised (the development of ‘autonomous and reflective thinking’ is an HCPC set expectation for courses of this sort). A reactive and defensive response is likely only to amplify those concerns. It was reasonable to expect a student whose career was at stake to have gone further to show that he understood the questions and had some reassuring answers.”
Ngole also had a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education rejected earlier this year, after it decided the university had followed its procedures and “there was no evidence of bias”.
After the hearing, Ngole said he was disappointed by the judge’s decision and would launch a further appeal.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which supported Ngole’s appeal, said: “Many views are frequently expressed by students on social media and in other contexts. It is the expression of Biblical morality that has been singled out for sanction by the university.
“The university, in investigating Felix’s personal Facebook posts and disciplining him for them, is acting as if they are thought police. This ruling will have a chilling effect on Christian students up and down the country who will now understand that their personal social media posts may be investigated for political correctness.”