Two weeks ago Tom Flanagan made comments on the subject of Paedophilia. His notions on the subject; of its relative harm; personal liberty and suitable punishment were poorly received. Over the next few days friends and foes alike were treated to what has become routine for Public figures, in a Media saturated world, whose actions or words incite opprobrium. First came his associates separating themselves from him and showing public disapproval of his words. Followed quickly by termination of employment; and the ubiquitous "early retirement" these kinds of affairs can prompt. Within 24 hours Mr. Flanagan gave an angry public an apology, but it was too late; professionally he was done. In a very short time Tom Flanagan, a towering figure in the Conservative movement; friend, confidant and advisor to the powerful. fell hard.
Some have defended Flanagan, writing on the topic of academic freedom, declaring it is wrong to fire him for his views. His firings were Damage Control 10, prevent whatever taint that has attached itself to your (former) friend and associate from transferring to you or your institution, Party or business. The private sector has is quick to cut its losses. A university should have other rules. Academics need to be able to speak freely on a wide variety of subjects, many delicate, without fear of dismissal. I agree. I know I would not appreciate a climate scientist dismissed from their position for voicing an opinion on the Tar Sands their contribution to climate change; or Statisticians their concern on the Harper governments subversion of the Census. So why am I, in this instance, unwilling to grant him the full cover of academic freedom.
Child abuse is a delicate subject, one that should be approached in a careful manner. His comments were short, casual and assuming, rattled off in a setting not properly prepared for the discussion of child sexual abuse. It is no surprise that a public, not normally engaged in detached theoretical thinking, reacted with outrage. As an academic, it is incumbent upon him to treat with gravity, subject like Child Abuse and devote the necessary time to answer very difficult questions and if he can't he should consider not giving an answer, this is not self censorship, just the simple care one expects from a professional thinker. I would be just as inclined to fire a carpenter that worked quickly, but poorly.
Flanagan shows better of himself in an article written the National Post. If you can ignore the part where he talks of "traps". Flanagan gives an accounting of his thoughts on child abuse with greater depth, care and consideration. Anyone reading that piece can and will disagree with his position but will unlikely feel any of the same outrage provoked by his Lethbridge comments.
There were two Tom Flanagans, the one who got fired for his Lethbridge comments and the one who probably wouldn't have been for the National Post article.
Academic freedom confers on its holder a privilege and a consequent responsibilities. It is a shield against the abusive power that seeks to silence, it should never be a cover for shoddy work.