Student wins appeal against removal from social work course over anti-homosexuality Facebook posts

Sheffield University wrongly confused expression of religious views with discrimination in expelling Felix Ngole from course, rules Court of Appeal

Felix Ngole
Felix Ngole (picture supplied by Christian Concern)

Story updated 5 July 2019

A man who was expelled from a social work course after making a series of Facebook posts that labelled homosexuality as a ‘sin’ and ‘wicked’ has won an appeal against the decision to remove him.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the University of Sheffield fitness to practise process that removed Felix Ngole, a devout Christian, from the MA in social work course in 2016 was “flawed and unfair” to him.

The court said that the university had taken an “untenable” position, that “any expression of disapproval of same-sex relations on a public social media or other platform which could be traced back to the person making it, was a breach of the professional guidelines”.

This was a disproportionate restriction on Ngole’s freedom of expression and also went beyond Health and Care Professions Council guidance on which the university’s fitness to practise process was based.

The judgment overturned a 2017 High Court ruling, which had rejected a judicial review claim from Ngole that the university’s decision was an unlawful interference with his rights to freedom of religion and of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights, and was arbitrary and unfair. The Court of Appeal said the 2017 judgment was based on the incorrect premise that the university was not proposing a blanket ban on Ngole expressing his views on homosexuality in any public forum.

The Court of Appeal said that the university should convene a fitness to practise committee to reconsider the case and determine whether Ngole should be allowed to study. The university has said it is considering its response to the judgment.

Case background

Ngole started the two-year MA in September 2014 and, on his enrolment, had signed a 20-point agreement confirming he had read the Health and Care Profession Council’s guidelines on student standards and ethics and would strive to confirm to their expectations.

Case timeline

  • September 2014: Ngole starts MA at University of Sheffield
  • September 2015: Ngole makes Facebook posts condemning homosexuality
  • January 2016: University fitness to practise committee hears case and decides to remove Ngole from course
  • March 2016: University appeals committee upholds decision to remove Ngole
  • October 2017: High Court rejects judicial review claim by Ngole against removal
  • July 2019: Court of Appeal overturns High Court judgment and rules decision to remove Ngole was flawed and unfair

The agreement included ensuring that he did not allow his views about person’s sexuality (as well as other characteristics) to prejudice his interaction with them, and that he was aware that his conduct outside the programme may compromise his entitlement to complete his studies.

The case concerned a series of posts Ngole made on his Facebook account in September 2015 concerning the imprisonment of American registrar Kim Davis for her refusal to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples on grounds of her Christian beliefs.

Ngole, who had already completed his first placement by then, made about 20 posts, which included describing homosexuality as a “sin” and a “wicked act” and quoting Biblical passages condemning homosexual acts.

The posts were then reported anonymously to the university, which started an investigation, triggering a fitness to practise case, on the grounds that the posts indicated views of a discriminatory nature, in breach of HCPC guidance.

A fitness to practise committee, comprising three university academics, was convened to hear his case in January 2016, and concluded that Ngole be removed from the course on the grounds that:

  • Ngole had insufficient insight into the effect of publicly posting his views on his ability to be a social worker;
  • He showed ‘poor judgment’ in posting comments which may have caused offence to some people;
  • He was familiar with social media and relevant HCPC guidance;
  • He had given no evidence he would refrain from presenting his views in the same way in the future.

Ngole appealed the decision to the university’s appeals committee but it was upheld.

Legal issues

In the 2017 High Court hearing, the judge concluded that Ngole’s right to freedom of religion was not relevant to the case but that the university had interfered with his right to freedom of expression. Under human rights law, such an interference would be lawful if it were under a procedure prescribed by law, for a legitimate aim and a proportionate way of meeting that aim. The judge in the 2017 concluded that all these tests had been met.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the judge that the university’s actions were prescribed by law, in so far as it was acting under HCPC guidance and regulations, and was for a legitimate aim, in this case ensuring that service users have confidence that they will be treated with dignity and without discrimination.

“The use of aggressive or offensive language in condemnation of homosexuality, or homosexual acts, would certainly be capable of undermining confidence and bring the profession of social work into disrepute,” the Court of Appeal said.

However, it found that the degree of interference in Ngole’s right to freedom of expression was disproportionate as was the sanction of removing him from the course.

A disproportionate response

The court’s finding was based on its analysis of what happened during the fitness to practise process as well as a statement of clarification issued by counsel for the university during the case. This made clear that “any expression of disapproval of same-sex relations – however mildly expressed – which could be traced back to the person making it, would be a breach of the professional guidelines for social workers as far as the University was concerned”, the court said.

It said this could never be proportionate and went beyond the relevant HCPC guidance on the use of social media, which said that it was permissible to post your personal views but that action may need to be taken if they were “offensive, for example if they were racist or sexually explicit”.

The court also found that at no point did the university make it clear that it was the manner and language in which Ngole expressed his views – not the expression of them per se – that was the problem, not was he offered guidance on how he may express them more moderately.

It concluded: “This Court cannot finally determine whether the Appellant would have resisted the possibility of tempering the expression of his views or would have refused to accept guidance which would resolve the problem. This requires new findings of fact. This case should, therefore, be remitted for a new hearing before a differently constituted [fitness to practise] Committee.”

Reaction

Following the publication of the judgment, Ngole said: “This is great news, not only for me and my family, but for everyone who cares about freedom of speech, especially for those working in or studying for caring professions. As Christians we are called to care for and serve others, and publicly and privately we must be free to express our beliefs, especially when asked, without fear of losing our livelihoods.

In response to the judgment, a University of Sheffield spokesperson said: “The University of Sheffield supports the rights of students to hold and debate a wide range of views and beliefs. However, for students studying on courses that lead to professional registration, we have a responsibility to look at how any concerns raised could impact a student’s fitness to practise once registered.

“Fitness to practise committees use national professional guidance and often need to consider a student’s insight and consideration about their chosen profession. This case was therefore not part of the University’s standard disciplinary procedures or about its support of freedom of speech.

“The court dismissed the majority of the appeal submitted by the applicant and has only upheld one aspect to do with early procedural processes. The university will be considering its response to the judgement.”

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