Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Sheffield University expels Cameroonian student for anti-gay Facebook post

Cameroon is a largely Christian - mostly Catholic - country and there is no shortage of individuals from the country whose thoughts and utterances both online and offline are based on nothing but religious beliefs, sometimes extreme. Needless to say, some of their expressions are outrageous, deeply offensive to certain minority groups, anti-social and could cost them a place in communities that value inclusiveness and equal treatment of individuals irrespective of race, sexual orientation, gender or any other distinction.

A student was expelled from the University of Sheffield, a public research university in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. According to The Independent, the postgraduate student, Felix Ngole, was expelled from a social work programme after he posted anti-gay opinions on Facebook. The 38-year-old student reportedly shared a post on Facebook expressing support for Kim Davis - an American county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky who refused to sign marriages for same-sex couples, in defiance of a US Supreme Court ruling and a Federal court order. In September 2015, the student also reportedly commented on a link on Facebook quoting a Bible verse calling homosexuality an "abomination". The father of four was ejected from the social work course following a decision by a Fitness to Practise Committee. A letter from the Committee informed the student in question that his actions "transgressed boundaries which were deemed appropriate for someone who was entering the social work profession".

Felix Ngole said in his defense, according to The Independent: "My beliefs about marriage and sexual ethics reflect mainstream, biblical understanding, shared by millions around the world. Simply expressing that understanding, in a personal capacity, on my Facebook page, cannot be allowed to become a bar to serving and helping others in a professional capacity as a social worker."

The decision to expel Felix Ngole, who according to Cameroon Online is a Cameroonian, is reportedly being appealed and the expelled student believes the decision is a "bar to office for Christians".

My Take

First of all, not all Christians are homophobic hence the University of Sheffield's decision to expel someone who espouses homophobic views is by no means a "bar to office for Christians". Even Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic church who be believed to be the descendant of Saint Peter, does not appear to be homophobic. He famously said he is in no position to judge someone who is gay. And I guess Sheffield University has many Christian students enrolled in the numerous programme it offers, including the social work programme who do not share or espouse homophobic views. This case is not about Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or whatever. It is about someone with anti-social views wanting to be a social worker.

Homophobia is certainly mainstream, reflects a biblical (and perhaps koranic) understanding and shared by millions of believers around the world. But it must not be given a pass by institutions of higher learning - like the University of Sheffield University - tasked with preparing students for public service professions like social work in England or elsewhere.

Individuals sanctioned for publicly expressing despicable views and their supporters often point to freedom of expression in a bid to defend themselves and their views that have the potential to incite hatred against a group of people. Many, if not all of them, seem to be unaware of the fact that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute. The right to freedom of expression is provided for in article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is stated in sub section 3 of the same article that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it "special duties and responsibilities", and that the right may therefore be subjected to "certain restrictions". The restrictions, according to the ICCPR must be "necessary" and provided by law. The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (article 10) also allows necessary restrictions on freedom of expression such as restrictions in the interest of public safety, for the protection of reputation or rights of others or for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence. The African Charter on Human and People's Rights (article 9) provides for the right to express and disseminate opinions "within the law". This shows that freedom of expression is not absolute. Some countries like Finland have laws that criminalize speech that incite hatred against a group of people. An individual in a country with hate speech laws for example cannot go inciting hatred and making public statements that endanger the well-being and safety of others, and claim the right to do so. The right to free expression comes with duties and responsibilities - in the eyes of international human rights law.

But the case of Felix Ngole and Sheffield University is not about the law. It is about standards and ethics of a profession. The question is whether or not a university or any educational institution for that matter should be compelled to prepare people who hold and publicly express anti-social views for the social work profession. I do not think they should.

According to The Independent, a spokeswoman for Sheffield University said standards of the social work profession in England are nationally determined by the Health and Care Professions Council. So I looked up the the HCPC's standards of conduct, performance and ethics and it turns out that the standards also apply to students on an HCPC-approved program (see page 4). The standards require professionals to, amongst other things, challenge discrimination. Interestingly the standards also touch on the use of social media and networking sites. It requires professionals to use all forms of communication appropriately and responsibly, including social media and networking websites. In a separate document, guidance on conduct and ethics for students, published for students by the HCPC, it is stated that students studying to become professionals in a regulated profession have certain responsibilities and that they will be expected to meet high standards of conduct and ethics. It is also stated in the document a student's conduct outside of a regulated programme may affect his/her ability to complete the programme or register with the HCPC. The guide also urges students to make sure their behavior does not damage public confidence in their profession.

Clearly, Felix Ngole did not read or adhere to the HCPC's standards and student guide.

Kim Davis is not a suitable role model for a social worker. A social worker who thinks Kim Davis did the right thing by refusing to issue marriage licenses as required by law is likely to refuse to offer social services to service users who do not meet certain religious standards. A university's decision to expel a student who does not  meet the standards of the profession is a pre-emptive measure to protect the public.  

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