University of Sheffield student wins appeal after being thrown off course over homophobic Facebook comments

A devout Christian thrown off a University of Sheffield social work course after being accused of posting derogatory comments about homosexuals and bisexuals on Facebook has won an appeal against the decision.

Felix Ngole. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire
Felix Ngole. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

Felix Ngole, 40, said he was expressing a traditional Christian view and complained that Sheffield University bosses unfairly stopped him completing a postgraduate degree.

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He said his rights to freedom of speech and thought, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, were breached when he was thrown out.

University bosses said Mr Ngole showed "no insight" and the decision to remove him from the course was fair, adding that they had to consider his fitness to practice as a professional social worker.

A judge ruled against Mr Ngole after a High Court trial in London in 2017, but three Court of Appeal judges have overturned that ruling by Deputy High Court Judge Rowena Collins Rice – and say university bosses should reconsider.

Lord Justice Irwin, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave and Sir Jack Beatson had analysed Mr Ngole's appeal at a Court of Appeal hearing in London in March and ruled in his favour on Wednesday.

"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," said Mr Ngole after the appeal ruling.

"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."

Mr Ngole posted comments in 2015 while taking part in a debate on a Facebook page about Kim Davis, a state official in the US state of Kentucky, who refused to register same-sex marriages, judges heard

He had said Mrs Davis's position was based on the "Biblical view of same-sex marriage as a sin", said he was making a "genuine contribution" to an important public debate, and he was "entitled to express his religious views".

University bosses said he had posted comments on a publicly accessible Facebook page which were "derogatory of gay men and bisexuals".

Judge Collins Rice ruled that university bosses acted within the law.

She said freedom of religious discourse is a public good of great importance, but social workers had considerable power over the lives of vulnerable people and trust was a precious professional commodity.

However, appeal judges said the university's disciplinary proceedings were flawed.

They said university bosses adopted an untenable position - thinking that any expression of disapproval of same-sex relations, however "mildly expressed", on a public social media platform was a breach of profession guidelines.

They added that both sides had adopted extreme positions and disciplinary proceedings had got off on the wrong track.

A Sheffield University spokeswoman 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."