A sigh of relief for freedom of speech as Felix Ngole wins case: but why is the BBC so mealy-mouthed about it?

Royal Courts of Justice, London. Courtesy of Flickr / Anthony Majanlahti (https://www.flickr.com/photos/93226994@N00) under Creative Commons Licence 2.0
Royal Courts of Justice, London. Courtesy of Flickr / Anthony Majanlahti (https://www.flickr.com/photos/93226994@N00) under Creative Commons Licence 2.0.

Yesterday (3 July) the UK Court of Appeal reached an important and welcome decision in favour of freedom of expression in the case of Felix Ngole vs. University of Sheffield.

Felix Ngole was a mature student in social work at the University. He was expelled from his course in 2016 following an anonymous complaint to the University about certain comments he had posted in a Facebook discussion in which, asked for his view on homosexuality, he had quoted verses from the Bible and stated his view that the practice of homosexuality was a sin.

“The University wrongly confused the expression of religious views with the notion of discrimination. 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.”

Court of Appeal ruling, paragraph 5.10

On the basis of these comments a panel at the University had deemed Mr. Ngole “unfit to practise” and had consequently expelled him from the course. Their decision had been upheld at the High Court in 2017 but this decision was yesterday overturned by the Court of Appeal.

In its ruling (paragraph 5.10) the Court noted that,

The University wrongly confused the expression of religious views with the notion of discrimination. 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. In the present case, there was positive evidence to suggest that the Appellant [Ngole] had never discriminated  on such grounds in the past and was not likely to do so in the future (because, as he explained, the Bible prohibited him from discriminating against anybody).

The Court rightly concluded that, in expelling Mr. Ngole from the course, the University had infringed considerably upon his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It stated (paragraph 127),

In our view 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 if that proposition holds true for Christians with traditional beliefs about the literal truth of the Bible, it must arise also in respect of many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and members of other faiths with similar teachings. In practice, if such were a proper interpretation of professional regulation supported by law, no such believing Christian would be secure in such a profession, unless they resolved never to express their views on this issue other than in private.  Even then, what if a private expression of views was overheard and reported?  The postings in question here were found following a positive internet search by the anonymous complainant. What if such statements had been revealed by a person who had attended a church service or Bible class?

The Court of Appeal’s decision in this case is of tremendous significance in upholding the principle of freedom of expression for professionals in the UK. Had the original High Court decision been upheld, it would have meant that members of a great many social and health professionals were effectively debarred from expressing their views in any forum where their comments could be heard and reported by others (in effect, anywhere outside the privacy of the home) — regardless of whether those comments had any bearing on the professional’s ability to carry out their rôle, and in the absence of any evidence that the professional would behave in a discriminatory manner.

We therefore greatly welcome the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case.

 

BBC mealy-mouthed about this outcome

Given the significance of this ruling, the BBC’s coverage of it seems characteristically understated and, if I may say, mealy-mouthed.

At no point since yesterday has this story been anywhere near the front page of the BBC News website. I had to delve into News > UK even to find it. The screenshot below was captured from the BBC News > UK page yesterday (3 July) at approximately 22:25 BST. The reader may wish to play a game of ‘spot the story.’

Screen capture of the BBC News > UK page yesterday (3 July) at approximately 22:25 BST
Screen capture of the BBC News > UK page yesterday (3 July) at approximately 22:25 BST

One can’t help the impression that the BBC, one of whose Public Purposes in its Royal Charter is to “[champion] freedom of expression,” is reporting this story at all only with considerable reluctance.

 

This story on the BBC:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-48857032

A much better explained version of this outcome on the Christian Concern website:

https://www.christianconcern.com/our-issues/freedom/felix-ngole-wins-appeal-in-victory-for-christian-freedoms

The full judgement of the Court of Appeal in this case can be found here:

https://www.judiciary.uk/judgments/the-queen-on-the-application-of-ngole-v-the-university-of-sheffield

 

 

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