In the nineteenth century dictatorial employers had no hesitation in dismissing “troublemakers,” by which they generally meant those suspected of spreading socialism and other opinions they disagreed with. More recently a number of employers did the same thing to suspected trade unionists on so-called blacklists (or, if they could manage it, did not employ them at all).
Quite rightly, such practices which often made decent workers unemployable, were suppressed. Today, however, they seem to be back with a vengeance. There are two differences. One is that the blacklisted views that lead employers to victimise employees are opinions that contradict a certain leftish world-view, often on matters of sexual morality (though not exclusively so: a year ago, Falmouth University withdrew a job offer when it found that its chosen appointee had stood for election for the entirely lawful if hard-right political party Liberty GB). The other is that no one, or almost no one, thinks there is anything wrong in all this.
In the latest episode, a devoutly Christian mother in Fairford, Gloucester, was concerned that her son’s primary school, by bringing in the No Outsiders programme, was inculcating views on sexuality (in particular transgenderism) contrary to Christian teaching and at far too young an age.
She invited her Facebook followers to join in signing a popular petition issued by Voice for Justice UK against making the Relationships and Sex education programme compulsory in primary schools and withdrawing parents’ right to object. She also made it clear that she was uncomfortable with the content of a couple of books on sex education in regular use.
The offending Facebook posts had nothing to do with Farmor’s. They concerned teaching at another school (ironically, a Church of England primary).
What, you might ask, is wrong? The problem was that the mother, Kristie Higgs, worked at another school in the same town, Farmor’s, as a teaching assistant – a junior, often ill-paid, job done by those with dedication and without which much of our education system would be in even worse straits than it is. An anonymous nark read her Facebook page (see screenshots below) and reported it to her employers as an instance of “homophobic and prejudiced views.”
Disciplinary measures followed; she was found guilty of gross misconduct and summarily sacked. Tolerant, decent Twitter posts duly appeared: “Good riddance, Kristie Higgs has no place anywhere near children” and “Kristie Higgs, bigot, loses job. Good” were some of the nicer ones.
The matter is now the subject of legal proceedings: but if half of this is true it is exceedingly worrying.
For one thing, the offending Facebook posts had nothing to do with Farmor’s. They concerned a public petition and teaching at another school Fairford CofE Primary School (ironically, a Church of England primary), and moreover one where Mrs Higgs had every reason to comment: she had a child there. Things have come to a pretty pass when a mother’s entirely lawful efforts to do what is best for her own child in school according to her conscience are regarded as a sackable offence by any other school she happens to be employed at simply because it corporately disagrees with her ideas.
For that matter, just look at the petition she backed. She didn’t initiate it; it was similar to an entirely lawful petition to Parliament set up under a procedure instituted by Parliament itself; and it was not anti-LGBT (it merely asked for parents to continue to have the right to withdraw children from Relationship and Sex Education lessons).
Is merely drawing people’s attention to the possibility of signing a petition to preserve the status quo and rights of conscience the posting of “homophobic and prejudiced” views? Except to an obsessive LGBT activist who just can’t bear to see any views they disagree with expressed, or someone with a grudge, it’s hard to see.
Farmor’s reaction was also interesting. No doubt on the advice of its lawyers, it immediately alleged the prospect of grave reputational damage. But one suspects this was something of a smokescreen for press consumption.
Even the Guardian, not normally a fan of anyone who dares to disagree with the prevailing view on sexual morality, pointed out that according to the disciplinary panel itself there was no evidence whatever of reputational damage: something not surprising, given the nature of the post, and also the fact that it had been posted on a private account under Mrs Higgs’s maiden name.
Similarly it mentioned the magic words “illegal discrimination” (see here); but again, it’s a little puzzling why commenting on two schoolbooks and arguing against the equal moral value of same-sex relationships or transgenderism is either illegal or discriminatory. We await with interest what the County Council’s no doubt well-paid lawyers will come up with.
Mrs Higgs signed an entirely lawful petition to Parliament set up under a procedure instituted by Parliament itself.
Indeed, on the facts we have (and admittedly these may be incomplete), it is difficult to see that the school’s real attitude is any different from the overweening Victorian employers of old. It had a corporate ethos, including particular beliefs about sexual morality, and objected to any employee who had the temerity to disagree with it in public.
In this connection, Farmor’s statement that Mrs Higgs “did not demonstrate an appropriate understanding of the school’s requirement to respect and tolerate the views of others” is about as ironic as you can get. An essay might be set to the governors on the school on what it actually means to “tolerate the views of others” (hint: it might mean not sacking them for expressing them). A suitable prize might be two slim but very improving volumes: John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman on freedom of speech and liberty of conscience respectively.
All this, however, raises a further point. In contrast to some European countries, there are no actual legal restrictions in England on the terms employers can put in contracts of employment restricting the freedom of employees to speak their mind on matters of public interest.
Indeed, if Mrs Higgs’s case comes to court, it is likely to be fought largely on what her contract of employment provided. But this position is difficult to defend. It is no business of employers to control their employees’ freedom of speech on private media any more than is absolutely necessary to protect the employer’s interests from demonstrable harm.
It would be one of the most soundly conservative of measures for this Tory government to look after the little guy by legislating just what his employer can tell him not to say in his private life, and making it clear that any attempt to go further than this is none of the employer’s d**n business.
(Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as UKIP’s candidate in Bath)