U of C owes Tom Flanagan an apology

April 2013

"My words were badly chosen," conservative icon Tom Flanagan says of his comments on child pornography.

Tom Flanagan’s treatment after his comments on child pornography at the University of Lethbridge reflects a rush to judgment facilitated by instantaneous social media.

It took only hours for the Wildrose Party, the federal Conservative government, the CBC and the Manning Centre to cast him adrift. Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary, was quick to pile on, issuing a public denunciation less than 24 hours after the Lethbridge event.

One can understand the hasty reaction of political parties, but universities are supposed to be institutions of careful and deliberate analysis, where facts and context are thoroughly investigated before reaching conclusions. In this case, the university failed to measure up.

Cannon’s statement began innocuously. “Comments made by Tom Flanagan in Lethbridge yesterday,” she wrote, “absolutely do not represent the views of the University of Calgary.” Of course not. The university implements academic freedom in part by not adopting official institutional positions on the many controversies debated by its professors. Cannon would surely not commit her institution to one side of a dispute in her discipline of geomatics engineering.

Yet, Cannon had no qualms about advancing a university position on child pornography:

“Child pornography is not a victimless crime. All aspects of this horrific crime involve the exploitation of children. Viewing pictures serves to create more demand for these terrible images, which leads to further exploitation of defenceless children.”

Cannon believes Flanagan wants to decriminalize the allegedly “victimless” consumption of child pornography, a view she considers beyond the pale of reasonable debate. Supposing for the moment that Flanagan does hold this view, is Cannon aware that in the famous Sharpe case, both the trial judge and the B.C. Court of Appeal struck down Canada’s criminal prohibition of possessing child pornography, with one of the appeal judges concluding that it bore “the hallmark of tyranny”?

True, the Supreme Court ultimately (and correctly in our view) upheld the possession offence, but it called the trial judge’s ruling “courageous.” If judges can engage in reasonable disagreements about criminalizing possession, why can’t university professors? If the Supreme Court could acknowledge the courage of the other side, why could Cannon not do as much for Flanagan?

But does Flanagan really want to decriminalize consumption? Here’s the relevant part of his Lethbridge comments: “It is a real issue of personal liberty to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person.” Though this can certainly be read as a decriminalization argument, it might also suggest that demand-side consumption, while remaining a harmful crime, should be addressed more through treatment than incarceration — that we should jail mainly producers who “harm another person” directly. On this reading, Flanagan’s remarks do not treat any part of child pornography as a “victimless crime.”

Of course, we cannot know which position Flanagan was taking in Lethbridge because he was shouted down before he could explain. Is it too much to expect that Cannon would have taken this into account as she considered whether or not to throw him under the bus? Does academic principle not require giving potential adversaries a full hearing lest we end up knocking down straw men?

Perhaps Cannon’s haste prevented her from learning that Flanagan got little opportunity to speak during a question period largely devoted to lengthy tirades against him, and that he was cut short in his admittedly imprudent attempt to address a planted child-pornography question in an event devoted to considering the Indian Act. If she did know, she chose to denounce his truncated answer rather than to defend the kind of full and civil debate that academic freedom is designed to promote. Either way, she helped consolidate the victory of the enemies of academic freedom.

Even more egregious is the final paragraph of Cannon’s statement:

“Tom Flanagan has been on a research and scholarship leave from the University of Calgary since January of 2013. Tom Flanagan will remain on leave and will retire from the university on June 30, 2013.”

Why was this relevant or, indeed, anyone’s business? There can be only one reason: that the university wanted publicly to distance itself from this embarrassing employee. Indeed, it seemed to many readers of Cannon’s statement that the university had pressured Flanagan to retire because of his Lethbridge indiscretion. True, a day later the university released a correction, noting that retirement was Flanagan’s choice and that he “had submitted his letter of retirement on Jan. 3, 2013,” before his Lethbridge talk. Too late. The damage was done.

Tom Flanagan, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, will retire this June after 45 years of distinguished service at the University of Calgary. His voluminous and wide-ranging scholarship, while often controversial, appears in the best journals and university presses, has been widely praised for its quality, and has won major prizes. As he prepares to leave, his employer, in a fit of “moral panic,” is seen showing him the door rather than celebrating his achievements.

The university’s handling of this case has brought a palpable chill to the air of academic freedom at the U of C and is a blow to the institution’s reputation. An apology is owed not just to Tom Flanagan but to the entire campus community.