Many of us use Twitter, Facebook, or post comments on articles we read online. However, the right of professionals to free speech is restricted.
When the High Court recently rejected the Pharmacists’ Defence Association’s (PDA) challenge to the General Pharmaceutical Council’s (GPhC) introduction of new professional standards, Mr Justice Singh, commenting on the obligation on pharmacy professionals, students and trainees to behave professionally at all times, said: “If a pharmacy professional engages in a racist tirade on Twitter, that may well shed light on how he or she might provide professional services to a person from an ethnic minority.”
In August last year, in an example of precisely what Mr Justice Singh had in mind, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal suspended a solicitor from practice because he had posted violently anti-Semitic comments on his Facebook page.
At the end of October, the High Court had to deal with a case that required careful consideration of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Felix Ngole was enrolled on a Sheffield University course leading to registration as a social worker. Mr Ngole is a committed and sincere Christian whose views are based on a strict reading of the Bible. He posted on his public Facebook page comments such as: “Homosexuality is a sin.”
Mr Ngole appeared before a university fitness-to-practise panel, and led it to believe that he would not refrain from posting comments about his beliefs in the future. The panel concluded that Mr Ngole failed to grasp the perspective of possibly vulnerable users of social services, who might feel judged by him.
It was concluded that this could undermine wider public confidence in the social work profession. The panel removed Mr Ngole from his course, and he was unable to pursue his chosen career. The High Court held that the university’s decision was lawful. The judge said:
“Students as well as registrants [are] squarely on notice to behave appropriately at all times, including the use of social media… [They have] a measure of personal responsibility…for…awareness that personal conduct in public – whether or not in a work-related environment – can have an impact on the perception of the profession.”
The GPhC’s guidance Demonstrating professionalism online is short and unspecific. It says: “Pharmacy professionals have the same responsibilities and obligations when interacting online as they do when interacting face-to-face.” Recent cases highlight the risks if pharmacists and other healthcare professionals do not take care when expressing, even sincerely held, views online.
David Reissner is a senior partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP