Last Friday, a British court ruled that a college could expel a student for posting his position against same-sex marriage on Facebook by quoting the Bible. Tragically, the court cited free speech concerns in the ruling, but ultimately decided that a “perceived discriminatory intent” rendered the student’s speech unacceptable.
“It is a clear attempt by liberal elites to silence anything that has to do with traditional Christian beliefs,” Felix Ngole, the expelled student, told PJ Media on Tuesday. “Free speech can only be what it is if you agree with everything they agree with. They will come hard at you if you share conservative views — that is a taboo.”
Ngole was studying for a master of arts in social work at Sheffield University. In 2015 he made comments supporting Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses. He wrote that “same sex marriage is a sin whether we like it or not. It is God’s words and man’s sentiments would not change His words.” Ngole also quoted various Bible passages to support this position.
About two months later, the student received an email from a university official, informing him that his Facebook comments were under investigation, according to Christian Concern. A team later interviewed Ngole, and then a panel chaired by LGBT activist Professor Jackie Marsh removed him from his coursework. Last Friday, the court upheld the university’s decision after a two-day hearing.
In the ruling, Deputy High Court Judge Rowena Collins Rice noted that the university’s “investigatory team accepted that Felix was fully entitled to his religious beliefs, and had acted with honesty and integrity.” Collins Rice said Ngole’s views were not at issue, but his public posting of them, which “may have caused offence to some individuals.”
The university and the court agreed that Ngole’s freedom of speech had been impaired.
“Freedom of expression is an important right. Exercising that right to express the content of deeply held religious views deserves respect in a democratic and plural society, nowhere more so than in a university,” Collins Rice noted. “Freedom of religious discourse is a public good of great importance and seriousness.”
The judge even accepted that the university’s sanction of Ngole “was indeed severe.”
Even so, she ultimately ruled in favor of the university — due to a perceived risk of damage from Ngole’s comments. “It was how they could be accessed and read by people who would perceive them as judgemental, incompatible with service ethos, or suggestive of discriminatory intent,” Collins Rice argued.
“But 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,” the judge concluded.
Yes, a court judge ruled that the “perception” of Ngole’s Facebook comments as judgmental or “incompatible with service ethos” justified the university expelling him. She ruled that even though Ngole had lawfully expressed his Christian views in a context outside his professional studies, in a way that would have no impact on his work, the university was right to bar him from his chosen profession.
Indeed, the judge suggested that this Facebook post could be seen as incompatible with “service ethos,” that merely stating the Christian position on homosexual activity made him ineligible to serve others in a public setting.
Furthermore, the university had agreed that there was no cause for concern or evidence that Ngole had ever acted in a discriminatory fashion.
“From the start of this case, the university took a stand,” Ngole told PJ Media. “They couldn’t bear to have a student who thinks differently and they did everything within their power to build a case to expel me. I have never discriminated against anyone and never will. Their argument is based on perception alone.”
Ngole alleged that this was a clear case of viewpoint discrimination. If he had taken the opposite position, he would not have faced any sanction.
“The focus of the debate was on marriage and the Bible. If I had supported same-sex marriage, then the university would have been okay with that — the university aggressively promotes LGBT issues,” he told PJ Media. “The only reason why they had an issue with my participation in the debate is because I supported traditional marriage.”
Ngole noted that “no matter which side of the debate I took I would have offended someone!” He asked, “Does that mean that because someone would be offended we shouldn’t take part in a lawful debate that affects us as a society?”
“The court has ruled that though Felix is entitled to hold his Biblical views on sexual ethics, he is not entitled to express them,” Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, the firm supporting Ngole in his case, said in a statement. “But freedom to believe without freedom of expression is no freedom at all.”
Williams noted that “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.”
The Christian Legal Centre executive noted the irony that Collins Rice prized freedom of expression in her ruling. “In this case the judge has failed to safeguard Felix’s freedom of expression, in spite of the importance she rightly attaches to that freedom.”
Williams also quoted Jo Johnson, the British minister over universities, who criticized institutions of higher learning for failing to protect free speech. “Freedom of speech is a fundamentally British value which is undermined by a reluctance of institutions to embrace healthy vigorous debate,” Johnson declared. “Our university must open minds not close them.”
Williams argued that “rulings like this show that society is becoming increasingly intolerant of Christian moral values. Christians are being told to shut up and keep quiet about their moral views or face a bar from employment.”
“That’s the future we are heading into,” Ngole told PJ Media. “I pray Christians would wake up!”