The showtrial of Felix Ngole

This devout Christian was declared ‘unteachable’ for his views on homosexuality.

Andrew Tettenborn

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Topics Free Speech UK

If you’re a student, be careful what you say. You never know who could be checking up on you.

Four years ago, Felix Ngole, a social-work student at Sheffield University and a devout Christian, posted his views about same-sex marriage and homosexuality online. Commenting on a news story, Ngole wrote, among other things, that ‘the Bible and God identify homosexuality as a sin’. Another student found the posts and reported them to the university.

Ngole was thrown off his course. The views he expressed, and his refusal to recant, were said to indicate unfitness to practise within the rules of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). The university’s appeals body and the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education supported the decision, as did the High Court. Last week, however, Ngole successfully had the decision overturned in the Court of Appeal.

When Ngole’s postings were first brought to Sheffield University’s attention, one might have expected someone to have an informal word with him, to see if matters could be sorted out quickly. Staff might have considered the likelihood of people stumbling across his comments. But instead, Ngole had the book thrown at him immediately.

A formal inquisition, conducted by a panel of two investigators and a note-taker, was followed by the kind of ponderous disciplinary proceedings normally reserved for exam cheats or demonstrators who have smashed up the vice-chancellor’s office. It is not clear why the university reached straight for its sledgehammer when faced with such a small nut. A year after Ngole’s expulsion, the university’s vice-chancellor extolled the virtues of free speech in the Times Higher Education.

As is often the case at universities today, Ngole’s case was most likely regarded as a matter of management and public relations, rather than educational principle. The university, one suspects, was concerned with keeping the HCPC sweet, maintaining an LGBT-friendly reputation, and keeping on the right side of student groups who might otherwise reduce its fairly high National Student Survey ratings. Ensuring the fair treatment of a student with unconventional views could come a poor second to any of these factors.

As far as the university was concerned, any expression of disapproval towards same-sex relations – however mildly expressed – would warrant disciplinary action. In the disciplinary proceedings, the university presented itself as a self-satisfied and intransigent body which had made up its mind early on that Ngole was a tiresome nuisance who had to go. Essentially, the senior academics who decided Ngole’s fate took the attitude that there was no room for argument on this issue. If Ngole refused to accept that they were right, the only possible conclusion was that he was ‘unteachable’, and the only possible result was his exclusion from the course. I fear this approach is common among senior university management. It is deeply worrying that a Russell Group university should see nothing wrong in behaving this way, merely because a student disagrees with its point of view.

The Court of Appeal’s decision was clearly the right one. It is good news for Ngole and for free speech more broadly: an attempt by a university to police the private speech of one of its students on the internet has been publicly rebuffed. The court also rejected the university’s argument that professional bodies and universities were free to punish any and all criticism of homosexuality.

But this aside, the judgement was very limited. It dealt solely with the procedures adopted by the university and its decision that the only possible result was exclusion. The court did not call into question the right of a university or a professional body to monitor and sanction students’ online comments or social-media posts. The message from the court seemed to be that, had the university got the procedure right, it could have legitimately excluded Ngole. Most tellingly, the court did not order the university to reinstate him. Instead, he now has to go through the whole hearing process at the university again.

If the university has any decency, it should give in gracefully and take Ngole back.

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a former Cambridge admissions officer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Tom MacDuff

13th July 2019 at 10:22 am

Similar to the Israel Folau case in Australia which has attracted so much support, much of it from atheists or people with no horse in the race regarding homosexuality.

kipple ubik

11th July 2019 at 4:58 pm

The chickens are coming home to roost here in the US too.
Witness the recent $44 million judgement against Oberlin College.

Gerard Barry

11th July 2019 at 4:14 pm

I read about this case a while back and was appalled at the university’s actions. Despite being gay myself, I totally accept anyone’s right to say that homosexuality is a sin if that’s what they believe. I think that abortion is morally wrong. Could I lose my job (or be kicked out of university if I were still a student) for saying so? I sincerly hope not.

gershwin gentile

11th July 2019 at 3:39 pm

SU probably shouldn’t look into the majority held view of questionaired Muslims. They would squit themselves.

Ed Turnbull

11th July 2019 at 1:24 pm

Fellow commentators, can I suggest that you stop responding to ‘Amelia Cantor’ as if his / her / zer (pick your pronoun ‘Amelia’) comments are serious. Read them carefully: they’re clearly a woke parody / satire.

There are several possibilities:

1) the good Mr Doyle of this parish is creating Titania 2.0 (akin to what Stephen King did when he wrote the Bachman books);
2) some other soul has been inspired by Titania, and thought they’d give it a go themselves (kudos to you sir / madam);
3) ‘Amelia’ is *real* (unlikely, and too horrible to really contemplate – it’s like imagining Great Cthulhu actually exists), in which case I once more question the wisdom of universal suffrage.

Chin chin

Hana Jinks

11th July 2019 at 1:31 pm

It’s funny then how she responds to all you and not me. She’s real, alright. Believe me, they’re out there.

James Knight

11th July 2019 at 6:16 pm

I often think many of the statements by woke student activists are hoaxes. Tragically almost always are not. Then before you know it what starts on US campuses ends up in UK institutions and UK law.

Hana Jinks

12th July 2019 at 11:55 am

See? She answers others, but not me.

Amelia Cantor

13th July 2019 at 10:33 am

My pronouns are “she” and “her”, thank you. Trans women are women. Get over it.

Hana Jinks

13th July 2019 at 8:16 pm

So how did you change your chromosomes? And why do you address everyone else on here bar me?

Amelia Cantor

11th July 2019 at 10:23 am

Ngole is a homophobe of a particularly upsetting kind, because oppressed communities should stand in solidarity against hegemonic white cis-gender hate. Why can Ngole not see that his blackness runs parallel with the LGBTQIA+ community’s LGBTQIA+ness?

jessica christon

11th July 2019 at 11:22 am

To paraphrase Douglas Murray: He’s Black, but he’s not the right kind of Black.

Hana Jinks

11th July 2019 at 11:42 am

There isn’t any such thing as homophobia, so that makes you a liar for a start. There aren’t any oppressed communities in the west. White people have been programmed to not be racist. Lqbt are perverts, and Mr Ngole is a Christian. Your mind has been perverted by utter nonsense. You need to be de-programmed.

Hana Jinks

11th July 2019 at 12:21 pm

And “cis” is yet another meaningless neologism of the left. This one indicates that there are far-left, fascistic perverts talking.

Danny Rees

11th July 2019 at 3:23 pm

Says the utter clown who makes out people who throw their money away in dingy betting shops are oppressed.

Hana Jinks

11th July 2019 at 4:11 pm

I’m prepared to be gracious towards you Danny as long as you don’t misrepresent me, attempt to insult me, or bring non-existent irrelevancies into any conversation that l may or may not be in.

gershwin gentile

11th July 2019 at 5:02 pm

What about if Ngole wasn’t a Christian, but a Muslim? How would you feel then?

Amelia Cantor

13th July 2019 at 10:46 am

I would feel the same way: deeply saddened that someone from one oppressed community was reproducing the prejudice and hate of the cis-gender white hegemonic capitalism against another oppressed community.

Hana Jinks

13th July 2019 at 9:29 pm

Are you saying that brown, kommie trannies are the only one’s with any credibility?

Hana Jinks

11th July 2019 at 10:20 am

Those responsible for rhis miscarriage should be jailed.

Hana Jinks

16th July 2019 at 2:55 am

Or at least questioned.

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