03/01/2013 02:46 EST | Updated 05/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Tom Flanagan: Academics Defend His Child Porn Views As Free Speech


CALGARY - Some academics are coming to the defence of former Stephen Harper strategist Tom Flanagan.

The retiring University of Calgary professor came under fire for controversial comments on child pornography during a public lecture in southern Alberta on Wednesday.

Flanagan told the crowd in Lethbridge he has "grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures" and "for doing something in which they do not harm another person."

Barry Cooper, a fellow political science professor at the university, said Friday that Flanagan was making a reasoned argument in an academic setting and he doesn't deserve to be so widely condemned for having an opinion.

"That is a defensible position. It's not one that is held by most people in this country but it is, nonetheless, a defensible position."

A man in the audience recorded Flanagan's comments on his cellphone and posted the video on YouTube. There was widespread outrage.

The CBC dumped him as a panellist on its "Power and Politics" show. The University of Calgary, the Prime Minister's Office and other politicians sent out tweets or news releases distancing themselves from his views.

Alberta's Opposition Wildrose party said it would no longer have anything to do with Flanagan. He managed the party's election campaign last year.

Cooper calls the response cowardly or, in scientific terms, a moral panic. "This is such a taboo subject that you simply cannot talk about it and, if you do, you're denounced."

Cooper said he ran into Flanagan on campus when the firestorm erupted Thursday. "He was sort of amazed about the volume of noise. I said it was a personal best: He's been thrown under the bus by seven different organizations."

News of Flanagan's remarks also travelled the globe. The story was picked up by the BBC in the United Kingdom.

The CBC posted a note on its website from Flanagan apologizing to anyone he offended. He said he chose his words poorly and absolutely condemns child abuse.

Mark Mercer believes Flanagan has nothing to apologize for.

"I don't know why people are so up in arms," said the philosophy professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. He and Flanagan are both executive members of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.

Mercer said he was so aghast by the backlash that he fired off an opinion piece defending Flanagan that ran in an Ottawa newspaper.

Flanagan has every right to publicly discuss his views on child porn, said Mercer. And creating controversy isn't a bad thing.

"It's certainly a question and, if you think that Flanagan is wrong, the task is to produce evidence and argue — not to denounce him for actually having an opinion on the matter."

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University, describes Flanagan as one of the top political strategists, authors and commentators in the country.

Bratt said some professors, such Flanagan, are intentionally provocative and play the devil's advocate to stir debate. But he said he has closely watched the YouTube video of Lethbridge lecture and doesn't think that's what happened.

The topic of discussion was the Indian Act and although Flanagan was asked questions about other topics, he chose to answer the one about his views on child pornography. And he crossed the line doing it, said Bratt.

"Where he gets into real difficulty is saying there are no victims here. To say that we can't treat consumers of pornography the same as the producers of it, that's a debate I think we can have. But to say that it's victimless — that's a bit tough to stomach."

He said the CBC and politicians have every right to cut ties with him over the comments.

Flanagan, who is in his late 60s, announced in January that he would be retiring as a professor in June, when he finishes a research leave.

Bratt said the man's reputation may not be completely ruined by his child porn views, although he may long be remembered for them.

"It's what I call the first graph of the obituary, will this be mentioned in the first paragraph?" Bratt asked.

"It may very well be."

— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton

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