Kristie Higgs, a 44-year-old school assistant, didn’t realise that criticising the sex education curriculum at her son’s school on Facebook would get her fired. For one thing, her account was set to ‘private’, so only her family and friends could read it. For another, she was posting under her maiden name, so no one could connect her with her employer. Finally, the school that sacked her for expressing these views wasn’t actually her son’s, but another one altogether. This seems a pretty clear case of a person losing her livelihood for dissenting from progressive orthodoxy.
Kristie’s case is being heard at an employment tribunal in Bristol this week. The dispute relates to two Facebook posts from two years ago. In one, Kristie urged her family and friends to sign a petition objecting to mandatory new sex and relationship lessons in English primary schools. In the other, she shared an article by an American conservative Christian commentator criticising the promotion of ‘transgender ideology’ in children’s books. ‘This is happening in our primary schools now!’ Kristie said.
Someone circulated screenshots of these posts to Kristie’s colleagues at Farmor’s School in Gloucestershire, where she had worked for seven years, and predictable outrage followed. Senior members of staff compared her views to those of ‘Nazi right-wing extremists’, according to Kristie, and someone lodged a formal complaint with the head, claiming her posts were ‘homophobic and prejudiced to the LGBT community’. Kristie was summoned to a ‘disciplinary’ at a hotel just before Christmas, where she was cross-examined for six hours by three of the governors, supported by three members of staff. When Kristie tried to explain that her objection to her son being taught that a woman could have a penis was rooted in her Christian beliefs, she was told: ‘Keep your religion out of it.’ After the hearing she was dismissed for ‘illegal discrimination’, ‘serious inappropriate use of social media’ and ‘online comments that could bring the school into disrepute’.
There are two free speech issues at stake here. The first is whether an employer’s social media policy, limiting what employees are allowed to say on Facebook and other platforms, can legitimately be extended to private conversations, particularly when the employee has taken steps to disguise her identity. On the face of it, that looks like a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to privacy. The second is whether Kristie’s comments constituted ‘illegal discrimination’ as defined in the UK’s Equality Act 2010. Did they create an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’ for LGBT colleagues, even though they wouldn’t have known about them if they hadn’t been circulated by someone trying to get her into trouble? Or is she permitted to express such views by Article 10 of the ECHR, which protects the right to freedom of expression?
Kristie’s legal team can also appeal to the Equality Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against employees for their possessions of various ‘protected characteristics’, including religion and belief. Her lawyers will argue she lost her job because she expressed her belief about the immutability of natal sex. However, when Maya Forstater’s lawyers made that argument in an employment tribunal last year — she was let go after colleagues raised concerns about her tweeting that human beings cannot change sex — the judge said her gender critical beliefs weren’t ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’.
Kristie’s treatment is -obviously deeply concerning for believers in free speech, but there’s another aspect of her case that worries me. According to a recent white paper, a Bill will soon be brought before parliament empowering Ofcom to regulate the internet. Under the proposals, Ofcom will be able to impose punitive fines on Facebook for not removing content that political activists find ‘offensive’, even if it doesn’t fall foul of any existing speech laws.
Twitter already bans users for misgendering trans people, so it won’t take much of a push for all the social media companies to ban people for criticising trans ideology. The Free Speech Union has just produced a briefing paper warning of the dire consequences for free speech if the government’s internet censorship plans become law, and I urge you to read it. Soon, it won’t just be Kristie Higgs who is punished for challenging woke dogma. It will be all of us.