As reported back in March, in September 2015 Felix Ngole was a social work student at Sheffield University. During a Facebook debate about Kim Davis- the county clerk from Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples- he wrote:
“The Bible and God identify homosexuality as a sin. Same-sex marriage is a sin. The devil has hijacked the constitution of the USA”.
He also shared a post saying “I stand with Kim Davis” and quoted a bible verse from Leviticus calling homosexuality an “abomination”.
His comments were reported to Sheffield University who convened a fitness to practice committee hearing. Following this, he was informed that he had been “excluded from further study on a programme leading to a professional qualification” and was “no longer recognised as a University student.”
Two years after making the comments that resulted in his expulsion, Felix Ngole appealed to overturn Sheffield University’s original decision.
Setting his case before the High Court in October 2017, Mr Ngole argued that his rights to freedom of speech, protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, were breached by Sheffield University and that their decision to expel him from his social work course was unjust.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Mr Ngole explained how he had argued Kim Davis’ position was based on the “Biblical view of same-sex marriage as a sin”. In contributing to a Facebook debate on the matter, Mr Ngole felt he was making a “genuine contribution” to enhance people’s learning on the subject and was “entitled to express his religious views”.
Lawyers representing Sheffield University defended the findings of their internal fitness to practice procedures, asserting that Mr Ngole had shown “no insight” into the offensive nature of his views. As a trainer of social workers and beholden to HCPC regulations, the university had a duty to consider Mr Ngole’s “fitness to practice”. In light of this duty, he was expelled due to public comments that were “derogatory of gay men and bisexuals”.
Finding that Sheffield University had acted necessarily and proportionately, Deputy High Court judge Rowena Collins-Rice ruled against Mr Ngole and his initial appeal was dismissed.
Mr Ngole’s bid to overturn this first ruling has been heard in the Court of Appeal during a two-day hearing which concluded today.
Mr Ngole’s barrister, Paul Diamond, argued that if the ruling from 2017 was allowed to stand then anyone working in a regulated profession would lose their right to free speech.
Three appeal judges were warned that, if the original ruling remained, regulators such as the HCPC would have to be given the powers of Orwellian thought police to monitor social media accounts. This would leave a fifth of the United Kingdom’s workforce vulnerable to charges that they had breached their professional code of conduct for expressing unpopular beliefs that others subjectively believed were prejudicial.
The appeal judges were told that Mr Ngole’s views are shared by millions of Christians and that people should not be persecuted for quoting or paraphrasing the Bible; that their religious beliefs and freedoms of expression are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Today, the Court of Appeal has ruled that the university should reconsider Ngole’s case.
Lords Justice Irwin, Justice Haddon-Cave and Sir Jack Beatson analysed Ngole’s appeal at a court of appeal hearing in London in March and ruled in his favour earlier today, saying the university should reconsider Mr Ngole’s case. At his appeal hearing, the judges ruled in his favour, stating that “the disciplinary proceedings were flawed and unfair” and said Mr Ngole’s case should be heard by another Fitness to Practice hearing.
The university said it was considering its response to the judgement and that they supported 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.”
Ngole said after the appeal court ruling: “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 serve others and to care for everyone, yet publicly and privately we must also be free to express our beliefs and what the Bible says without fear of losing our livelihoods.”