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15th February 2024

Former Sociology Professor Wins Employment Tribunal Case Against The University of Bristol

Man in a suit holding an employment law book

The Claimant, David Miller, was employed by The University of Bristol in 2018 as a professor of Political Sociology. The Employment Tribunal found that the Claimants ‘anti-Zionist’ beliefs qualified as ‘philosophical belief and a protected characteristic’. Furthermore, it was found that the Claimant was subject to direct discrimination due to the university’s decision to dismiss the Claimant and to reject a subsequent appeal.

On 18 February 2019, Mr Miller delivered a lecture on Islamophobia in which he theorised that Islamaphobia in the United Kingdom was driven in significant part by five ‘pillars’, one of which was said to be the Zionist movement. On March 2019 the University received a complaint from Community Security Trust (CST) about the comments as two Jewish Undergraduate students had raised concerns about the statements made. The University in response stated they did not have a formal process for dealing with complaints from third parties but would speak with Mr Miller to consider changes to the lecture. The University also drew attention to its Freedom of Speech policy and student complaints procedure.

On 4 April 2019, four more complaints were made by Bristol Jewish Society and Union of Jewish Students. A student complaint letter referred to an event organised by ‘Olive’ in November 2018 and a conference ‘PalExpo’ in July 2017 whereby it stated the Claimant had described the foundation of Israel as ‘by definition a racist endeavour, there’s no getting away from that’. In addition, this was alleged to have contravened the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. It is noted that these specific examples in the student complaint were historic and related to comments made by the claimant before he was employed at the University. The University investigated the complaints including the allegations that there was misuse of university resources, failure to disclose outside interests, and potential violations of speech standards. The investigation by the University concluded that the Claimant’s actions did not constitute misconduct or violate the Equality Act 2010.

On 13 February 2021, the Claimant spoke at an event ‘Building the Campaign for Free Speech’ whereby the Claimant critiqued Zionist movements and linked Jewish student groups in the UK to political agendas aligned with Israel. This triggered a second investigation by the University whereby it was concluded that the statements did not constitute unacceptable speech but could potentially breach university conduct policies on confidentiality, the impact on university relationships, endangerment of health or safety, and adherence to acceptable behaviours and freedom of speech policies.

In the subsequent disciplinary hearing, it was found that the Claimant breached several university policies which amounted to gross misconduct. The subsequent appeal panel upheld the decision. The appeal took place as a review rather than a rehearing of the decision. One of the panel members who heard the appeal accepted that the appeal panel adopted the analysis in the dismissal letter without any material alteration. The Tribunal found that this in itself was an act of direct discrimination.

The Employment Tribunal accepted that the university was concerned over the impact of the Claimant’s expressions and the welfare of their students and staff but stated that the dismissal was due to the manifestation of his beliefs which therefore constituted direct discrimination and unfair dismissal under employment law. The Tribunal found that less severe disciplinary action could and should have been taken.

In relation to the unfair dismissal claim, the Tribunal stated that the basic and compensatory awards are to be reduced by 50% as the Claimant’s dismissal was caused or contributed to by his own actions.

The case highlights that a set of opinions deemed controversial by some may deserve protection in law.

Read the full Judgement

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