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Tom Flanagan and the Decline of Academic Freedom in Canada

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After Tom Flanagan, a professor at the University of Calgary, remarked at a University of Lethbridge lecture that he had grave doubts for jailing those who view child pornography "because of their taste in pictures," someone caught the footage on camera and posted it online. He was instantly cut from the CBC's Power and Politics show, the Manning Centre's Networking Conference, and the Wildrose Party of Alberta.

Additionally, the President of the University of Calgary issued a press release after Flanagan's incendiary remarks came to light:

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.

Shortly after, the University issued a clarification that Flanagan had submitted his intent to retire before the incident occurred. The press release indicates that the University wanted to distance itself from Flanagan, and the initial wording created the impression that he had been fired.

The President and Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers wrote an open letter to the University of Calgary's President, noting that:

Though you are perfectly entitled to state your own views, you have neither the right nor the authority to appropriate the voices and opinions of the entire University of Calgary academic community. Your action sets a dangerous example, putting damage control ahead of expressive rights and responsibilities. There is a slippery slope here that leads only too readily to the silencing and purging of scholars in the name of orthodoxy or in response to public outcry.

The reaction to Tom Flanagan's comments by his institution should deeply worry all Canadian academics and students. Flanagan, in an interview with Maclean's, noted that this response will result in a chilling of discussion in classrooms across Canada.

I'm already getting emails from professors saying, "I talk about subjects like this in the classroom; I'm going to have to be more defensive in the future." I wasn't teaching a class. This could also happen in the classroom; students could bring in a camera with a prepared question, get a professor to make a statement and put it on YouTube. Everyone teaching in Canada should think of the implications of this.

I think and hope this will turn into a major topic. People have to think about the sanctity of the classroom in the age of social media and what degree of support they'll get from universities when universities come under pressure in the court of public opinion. It's one thing to talk about academic freedom; it's kind of self-serving. In order to teach well, you have to be able to challenge students--to put things in a provocative way. You can't have someone looking over your shoulder, making sure you use the right words. Students are going to be the losers.

The most meaningful courses for students are those with engagement. I have taken classes where professors have made outlandish claims, as Flanagan notes he does in his classes, in order to challenge students to voice contrary opinions. This results in robust academic discussion. It is to the detriment of students when professors must water down their inflammatory classroom discussions in order to avoid being recorded, placed on the web, and ridiculed.

Any issue which evokes deep emotive responses from the public will be acknowledged by politicians and catered to. Politicians must always worry about the next election, toe the party line, and keep the public happy. They will thus not be able to truly and fully debate hot-button issues. Discourse becomes limited to 10-second talking points. Academics, however, are not subject to these same pressures. Tenure and academic freedom promote deeper analyses of issues which may be politically untenable to touch. When academic freedom is threatened, it is to society's detriment.

While free and open legislative debate is a crucial requirement for a democracy, external pressures and constraints will prevent our representatives from taking an unpopular stance against an issue. True dialogue, then, cannot always occur in the legislature. The university must remain a place where faculty and students can voice unconventional and controversial opinions without intimidation to conform to a popular viewpoint.

When scholars within an academic environment are coerced into adopting certain viewpoints, what does this say about the state of our democracy and our ability to handle ideas which may radically differ from our own?

While Flanagan apologized for his remarks, he notes that professors often state controversial claims in order to shock students and engage them in debate.

Shortly after the incident, the editor of Policy Options, a Canadian public policy magazine, refused to publish an article by Flanagan on an unrelated topic because of his statements. Jonathan Kay and Terence Corcoran in the National Post aptly argue:

We bet the editors at CBC, Policy Options and others all know full well that Tom Flanagan doesn't actually believe child porn is harmless. These are smart people, after all -- people who have read Mr. Flanagan's work for years, and have met him in person. So why have they excommunicated him? Because they imagine that other people -- readers and listeners, and Canadians at large -- expect them to do so.

While Flanagan's statements were certainly abhorrent, they were also quite clearly taken out of context. There is no surprise that politicians have distanced themselves from him. But the response by the University of Calgary, CBC, and Policy Options is nothing short of unprofessional. The quest to discredit and ridicule Tom Flanagan will surely result in a chilling of the expression of controversial opinions.

Originally published in The Prince Arthur Herald.