Lecturer with ‘non-PC’ views not protected by UK employment equality legislation

12-02-2019

Authors: Cian Beecher, Declan MacQuillan and Niamh Fennelly

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A UK Employment Tribunal has found that those who express ‘non-PC’ views in the workplace cannot expect to claim a right to those beliefs in an employment equality context.

A UK Employment Tribunal (“ET”) has rejected a claim for unfair dismissal brought by a former senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln, who was disciplined and ultimately dismissed following interpersonal issues and disagreements with colleagues. The academic, who worked in social policy, claimed that he had been discriminated against as a result of his non-PC beliefs. In rejecting his claim, the ET stated that “…the tendency to favour what is palatable in social policy discussion over the truth (in colloquial terms this tendency is known as political correctness) is not a philosophical belief that has the protection of section 10 of the [UK] Equality Act 2010.”

Background

The claimant asserted that the “discrimination” against him began in 2015, when he set-up a Twitter account in order to promote a book he had written. Having been labelled a “Tory bigot” by a fellow Twitter user, he stated that he was astonished to see “left wing” colleagues from the University join in on what he described as discriminatory attacks. In one instance, a colleague of the claimant responded to one of the Twitter users, urging the individual not to “…discount the whole team off the back of the work of one member of staff.” The claimant also alleged that during this time the Deputy Head of the University’s School of Social and Political Science appeared to sneer at him, and questioned whether his work was worthy of funding.

After the claimant complained to his line manager, the University commenced an investigation into the matter, eventually concluding that both the claimant and certain of his colleagues had breached the University’s “respect” policies. The claimant contended that the fact that his colleagues had been found in breach of the policies led to “the inescapable conclusion” that he had been discriminated against on the basis of “political philosophical beliefs”. Disputes between the claimant and his colleagues continued until August 2017 when the claimant was dismissed by the University, following which he brought the claim for unfair dismissal.

Will the Irish courts follow this approach?

As the ET’s judgment was delivered orally, we do not have the benefit of the ET’s detailed legal analysis. Given the diverse and sometimes conflicting viewpoints expressed by employees in the workplace, it is encouraging to see a rational approach being taken as to whether something truly constitutes discrimination on a protected ground. However, in considering whether the Irish courts would following this line of reasoning, two points are worth noting.

  1. In Ireland, academic freedom is conferred on universities and their academic staff by the Universities Act 1997 (the “Act”). The Act gives academic staff the freedom, within the law, to “…state controversial or unpopular opinions” and provides that they “…shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.” The precise scope of this right is unclear as the statutory provisions conferring academic freedom have not yet been tested in the Irish courts.
  2. In addition, there is no specific protection against discrimination on the “philosophical belief” ground contained in the Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2015. Nevertheless, there are numerous cases where employees have been found to have suffered discrimination for having expressed controversial beliefs. One such case is Mbuyi v Newpark Childcare (Shepherds Bush) Limited, where the dismissal of an Evangelical Christian for negative comments on homosexuality was held to be discriminatory. In a climate where it has been suggested that political correctness has ‘gone mad’, we can expect that this issue will soon be revisited.
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