The tyranny of workplace censorship

Andrew Tettenborn

Topics Free Speech UK

It isn’t only governments that try to suppress free speech these days. Employers can be just as bad. Take the case of Richard Page.

Page was a non-executive director of the Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, and also a magistrate. During an adoption hearing in 2014, he privately mentioned to his co-magistrates that, as a Christian, he doubted if adoption by same-sex couples could be in a child’s best interests. He was promptly reported by one of these colleagues. Having been officially reprimanded for expressing such thoughts, he went public in the Daily Mail and on the BBC, repeating his view and complaining of pressure to silence him.

He was subsequently removed as a magistrate by the Lord Chief Justice and the then justice secretary, Michael Gove, on the basis that his public statements created justifiable concern that his personal views might illegitimately colour his judgments. He appealed the decision, and in June this year the Employment Appeal Tribunal decided against him.

And, in this case, probably rightly. There was a close connection between Page’s judicial function and what he said: just as a vicar cannot very well be allowed to promote devil-worship or a Tory agent Trotskyism, so too it looks inconsistent for a judicial officer to express publicly personal views which might be seen as inconsistent with his duty to decide cases impartially on the evidence.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the NHS trust’s treatment of Page. In February 2015, the chair of the trust’s LGBT network complained that Page’s public defence of his position was ‘highly offensive to same-sex parents’, and that it ‘would be highly damaging if the LGBT community, and society in general, were to see [the NHS trust] as harbouring this type of opinion without action’. In other words, this particular pressure group, the NHS trust’s LGBT network, would take a poor view of the trust if it failed to take all possible steps to suppress public expression of such opinions by anyone connected with it. The trust obliged and suspended Page on 21 March 2016, arguing that what he had said, and his lack of a grovelling apology for saying it, was likely to have a negative impact on the confidence of staff, patients and the general public in him as a local NHS leader. Given Page’s contract, up for renewal in June 2016, was not renewed, the suspension was effectively a sacking.

Page went to court in 2017 and lost: the reason for the sacking, said the court, was not Page’s religious views, but the impact his publicising of them had on the trust’s ability to serve sections of the local community.

This may be right as a matter of employment law, but, even so, it is still exceedingly worrying. Whatever Page’s pronouncements might suggest about his fitness for the judiciary, they had nothing whatever to do with his position, presumably on the financial-control side, in NHS management. The trust’s self-righteous insistence that this was nothing more than a matter of needing to maintain the public’s confidence in its service provision is disingenuous. The idea that the views of a health trust non-executive director on same-sex adoption can prejudice provision of healthcare by its doctors and nurses is fantastical — and suggesting that patients might somehow be discouraged from seeking treatment on the basis of research into the opinions of a non-executive director of their local health trust is preposterous.

It is hard not to conclude that the NHS trust throughout showed a sense of entitlement over its workforce of a kind that one might have expected from some dictatorial 19th-century mill owner. Despite its own stated commitment to ‘building and delivering services where every individual has the opportunity to achieve their potential, is treated with respect and is able to be themselves’, it seems to have happily promoted its own corporate opinions on questions of political and social policy and then required its employees, at least outwardly, to agree with them. Indeed, Page’s contract of employment apparently required him expressly to ‘promote equality for LGBT members of the community’. However praiseworthy such a goal may be, this is a blatantly political requirement imposed on someone whose job had nothing to do with politics.

Unfortunately, this is becoming all too common: witness the report in spiked of a worker at Asda fired on grounds of Islamophobia, having posted a Billy Connolly routine mocking all religions on his own private social media. What is even more worrying is that there is currently not much the law can do about it. There is effectively no limit on the gagging orders that employers can insist employees sign if they want to get or keep a job; if ever a worker does win a high-profile case against an employer who objects to what he says in a private capacity, all that happens is that contracts are quickly redrafted to prevent a repeat. The result is predictable: large numbers of people frightened to say what they think. Indeed, the effect may be even more corrosive in practice than state censorship. There are many people who, even if prepared to discount the risk of a visit from overstretched plods, may well buckle before the very real threat of a P45.

This isn’t necessary. If ever there was a campaign that libertarians, socialists and conservatives could join hands on, it is for legislation guaranteeing workers the right to free speech in a clearly private capacity, and preventing the employer imposing any restrictions except for speech that directly refers to it, infringes its rights or affects the ability of the employee to do his job. Somebody might even see this as an immediate political opportunity. What about Boris becoming the workers’ freedom champion? It has a nice ring to it.

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

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Martin Bishop

21st July 2019 at 8:42 pm

“National Secular Society chief executive Stephen Evans said: “Rather than reaching decisions based on the evidence before him, Richard Page has shown a willingness bring his personal views to bear. In a secular legal system, judges must not allow their personal religious convictions to intrude.

“By allowing his personal religious views to influence his judicial decision-making, Mr Page undermined the principle of impartiality, and therefore, the judiciary itself. The court is therefore right to reject his appeal.””

Sounds like it wasn’t just a case of him airing his prejudicial views, but actively discriminating, then claiming that it was him being discriminated against because he couldn’t pass legal judgements on others based upon religious belief. Reading elsewhere, this doesn’t seem to be the ‘poor innocent victim being silenced’ that we’re led to believe here.

Marvin Jones

22nd July 2019 at 1:32 pm

In the 21st century, people with strong views and beliefs dating back 2000 years or more, must not be valid in any way, in any aspect of life. BUT! the appeasement of minorities with asinine and freakish demands must stop as well.

James Knight

15th July 2019 at 5:41 pm

So in essence you have freedom of thought so long as you don’t express those thoughts publicly. This is not a case of actual discrimination or abuse, it looks more like a difference of opinion on what is the ideal way to bring up a child.

People have all sorts of personal opinions. For example, a police officer may favour decriminalisation of soft drugs. The definition of being professional is that you are able to set them to one side. The opposite view is akin to narcissism.

Philip Constable

15th July 2019 at 2:18 pm

When I did my Social Psychology degree in the 1970s the received wisdom was exactly in line with Mr Page’s expressed opinion.

Linda Payne

15th July 2019 at 1:10 pm

Who are these Orwellian creeps who report speech in order to get someone removed from their jobs? We should be given their names

Amelia Cantor

15th July 2019 at 9:44 am

It is not tyranny, it is decency. Racists, xenophobes, Islamophobes and other haters SHOULD be reluctant to spread their hate for fear of justice. No platform for hate. Not in public, not in private, not anywhere.

Vulnerable communities, from the Muslim community to the Jewish community to the LGBTQIA+ community, all support “censorship”, because all of them know where hate speech inevitably leads.

Jimbob McGinty

15th July 2019 at 1:01 pm

Doubt about a same sex couple being suitable to raise a child is not hatred, Amelia, its just doubt.

Having a point of view that departs from the narrative is not hatred either.

Individuals are not defined by their point of view.

And what the chuff is ‘LGBTQIA’, other than a tricky rack of letters to start a game of Scrabble?

By the way, Im a middle-aged white male so it wont be news to me that Im literally a nazi. Anyway, sticks and stones…

James Knight

15th July 2019 at 5:28 pm

On the contrary they should be encouraged to speak out as much as possible. Sunlight is always the be best disinfectant.

There was the case of a man en route to a gay bar, apparently armed and intent on attacking gay people. But he was stopped because of what he said on social media.

Some people may want a cosy safe space in the virtual world. But what if the cost is danger and violence in the real world? Putting “feelings” of people in the virtual world over what goes on in the real world looks morally grotesque.

Stef Steer

15th July 2019 at 11:01 pm

If you choose the tools of a fascist i.e. censorship then you are a fascist regardless of your “Identity”

Captain Scott

15th July 2019 at 8:49 am

Research seems to vary on whether Richard Page’s statement is correct, although a lot of “research” that I have read appears to have set out with the intention of proving that gay couples are as good as straight couples when it comes to parenting. Common sense would suggest that parenting with a mum and a dad is a better option as both sexes bring different things to parenting, although it is clear that the quality of that mum and dad is probably what makes the difference and many do a poor job.

Richard Page’s statement may actually be factually correct, even if politically inconvenient. Surely it is the job of a magistrate to make choices that are in the best interest of the children, rather than to meet the wishes of one political group or another.

Putting the scary political side of this aside for a second, how can an NHS that is constantly craving additional funding be suspending someone on full pay for the best part of a year for a minor thought crime that has nothing to do with his job? This is financial recklessness.

Back to the scary politics; this censorship makes overturning this politics so difficult when individuals place their livelihoods on the line when they speak out.

Stef Steer

15th July 2019 at 10:54 pm

Yes well said, when things that are factually correct but uncomfortable for the woke establishment aren’t allowed to be said even as a private citizen without losing your job then we live in a truly nasty authoritarian state.

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