The National University of Ireland, Galway (Photo credit: YouTube)

Professor Sean Leen accused of “blatant homophobia” and branded “hateful dinosaur”

Academics at NUI Galway have effectively silenced a fellow Professor who referred to same-sex marriage as “immorality” in a public tweet. The Professor has since removed the tweet and his Twitter account is no longer available online.

Sean Leen, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, posted the following comment on Twitter on Saturday 02 June 2018. His tweet referenced the decision of the Irish national football team to wear jerseys “supporting LGBT rights“.

  • “This is a disgrace – what about the 1 in 3 people who voted against immorality in the so-called ‘Marriage equality’ referendum?”

In a flurry of Twitter activity on Thursday 07 June 2018, several academics at NUI Galway engaged in public condemnation of Leen’s tweet. Among these were: Donncha O’Connell, Established Professor of Law; Brian Hughes, Professor of Psychology and Dean of International Affairs; John Breslin, Senior Lecturer in Electronic Engineering; Chris Noone, Lecturer in Psychology; and David McNamara, Lecturer in Geology. Some of their Twitter activity is listed below.

  • Noone posted a tweet referring to Leen’s comment as “blatant homophobia”. Noone’s tweet was retweeted and/or liked by O’Connell, Breslin and NcNamara.
  • Hughes posted a tweet referring to Leen’s comment as “extremely troubling”, “unambiguously homophobic” and “totally unacceptable”. Hughes’ tweet was retweeted and liked by O’Connell and NcNamara.
  • Hughes liked the following comments made by other Twitter users: “Hateful dinosaurs like you have no place in modern higher education” / “Luckily your kind is the dying minority in Ireland”.
  • The following tweet was liked by O’Connell, Breslin and NcNamara: “I couldn’t be more disgusted that an academic from my alma mater is making such an overtly homophobic public remark. Everyone is entitled to their opinion (& their vote) on #MarRef but talk of “immorality” is simply not ok”.

Irish citizens are guaranteed “the free profession and practice of religion” under the Constitution (Article 44.2.1). The belief that same-sex marriage is immoral is a belief worthy of respect in a democratic society and one that attracts the protection of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015. In particular, the Acts prohibit harassment of an employee on the ground of his or her religious belief (this extends to the manifestation of religious beliefs, see [1]). Under the Acts, NUI Galway is vicariously liable for the actions of its employees.

The Collins English Dictionary defines homophobia as “the intense (or irrational) hatred or fear of homosexuals or homosexuality”. O’Connell, Hughes, Breslin, Noone and McNamara have publicly equated Leen’s sincerely held religious belief with homophobia. This is a false and perverse equation. In so doing, these academics have engaged in aggravated harassment of their colleague on the basis of his religious belief.

The public characterisation of Leen’s religious belief as “homophobic” immediately suggests to any right-thinking observer that Leen possesses an “intense (or irrational) hatred or fear of homosexuals or homosexuality”. Nothing in Leen’s original comment, however, indicated hatred or fear. It is thus reasonable to conclude that O’Connell, Hughes, Breslin, Noone and McNamara have defamed their colleague.

The NUI Galway Staff Anti-Bullying Policy includes as an example of workplace bullying “the maligning or ridiculing of a person directly or to others”. If the Twitter activity outlined above, carried out in full public view, does not fall under this description then it is difficult to see what would. Certainly describing a colleague as a “hateful dinosaur” and a “dying minority” (or ‘liking’ such a description) is well outside the pale of “positive and harmonious” discourse.

Of particular concern is Professor Donncha O’Connell’s role in this matter, considering his position as Established Professor of Law at NUI Galway. He qualified as a barrister in Ireland in 1992 and joined the Faculty of Law at NUI Galway in 1993. O’Connell currently teaches European Human Rights and has taught Constitutional Law for years. It is alarming that a man of his standing would engage in such behaviour, being acquainted as he is with the legal principles outlined.

NUI Galway, though endowed with the noble motto Deo Favente (“With the favour of God”), has become known in recent times as a place of extreme hostility towards the public manifestation of religious belief. In such an environment, a regular reminder of the constitutional and legislative protections for the public manifestation of religious belief is in order. The preservation of these rights and freedoms depends strongly on their robust and regular defence.

[1] DEC-E2014-045, McAteer -v- South Tipperary County Council, paragraph 4.6

Written by Isaac Burke

Hardiman Scholar at NUI Galway