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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Employment Law / 446: Dismissal of university professor for manifesting his protected anti-Zionist belief was unfair and discriminatory

In Miller v University of Bristol, the Employment Tribunal has ruled that the dismissal of an academic for manifesting his anti-Zionist beliefs was directly discriminatory and unfair. However, the Tribunal also reduced the employee’s unfair dismissal compensation by 50% to reflect his conduct. This case illustrates the significant difficulties which can arise for employers seeking to balancing conflicting rights and beliefs in the workplace, particularly in the context of higher education.

Dr Miller was employed by the University of Bristol as Professor of Political Sociology. His role involved investigative research into concentrations of power in society and included work on the Zionist movement. The University received complaints from Jewish students and other organisations about Dr Miller’s views on Zionism and comments he had made during a lecture, in a speech, and in published articles. In response, the University commenced an investigation and disciplinary proceedings. An investigation into whether his language had exceeded the boundaries of acceptable speech found that it had not, but noted that some of his statements would be offensive to many people. Dr Miller was subsequently summarily dismissed for gross misconduct on the basis that he had breached the University’s Rules of Conduct, Acceptable Behaviours Policy, and Freedom of Speech Code of Practice. Although the University acknowledged when dismissing Dr Miller that freedom of speech and academic freedom were important, it was concerned that he had not shown sufficient care and responsibility in the content of his statements and the way he had made them.

Dr Miller brought claims for philosophical belief discrimination and unfair dismissal. The Employment Tribunal agreed that his opposition to Zionism was a protected belief since it met the criteria established in the 2010 case of Grainger plc v Nicholson:

  • his belief was genuinely held. It had played a significant role in his life for many years and had been incorporated into his teachings and writings;
  • his belief was deeply held and not, as the University argued, simply an opinion or viewpoint based on research;
  • his belief concerned a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • it had the necessary cogency, seriousness, cohesion, and importance; and
  • Dr Miller’s belief was also held to be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others. The Tribunal highlighted that only beliefs advocating totalitarianism, hatred and violence in the gravest of forms would fail to meet this requirement, noting that Dr Miller did not support violence to oppose Zionism.

The University argued that even if Dr Miller’s belief was protected, it had to balance the rights of others and protect its own interests and reputation. However, although agreeing that these were legitimate aims, the Tribunal considered that summary dismissal was a disproportionate interference with Dr Miller’s freedom of belief when a lesser disciplinary sanction could have been used to achieve those aims. Dr Miller’s freedom of speech was given particular weight due to the context of his work as a university academic.

The Tribunal concluded that Dr Miller had suffered direct belief discrimination in relation to his dismissal. It also held that Dr Miller’s dismissal was unfair because it was tainted by discrimination and his actions did not amount to gross misconduct. However, Dr Miller’s basic and compensatory award were reduced by 50% to reflect his own conduct.

This case raised difficult and contentious issues and may be appealed. Like other claims of religious and philosophical belief discrimination, it involved very strong opposing beliefs and opinions, but it is important to note that Tribunals will not inquire into the validity of an employee’s belief. Employees wishing to rely on a belief as a protected characteristic will need to show that it satisfies the Grainger criteria, so cases on religious and philosophical belief discrimination will always be decided on their individual facts. Employers can dismiss or discipline an employee for manifesting a protected belief provided that action is taken in pursuit of a legitimate aim and is not disproportionate. This should include considering whether a less severe sanction than dismissal would be more appropriate. As this case illustrates, taking any disciplinary action will often involve a very difficult balancing exercise for employers.

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