SAFS letter to U of Calgary President Cannon

April 2013

March 8, 2013

President Elizabeth Cannon

Office of the President

University of Calgary

Calgary, AB, Canada

Dear President Cannon:

Re: Your comments regarding Professor Tom Flanagan

I’m writing on behalf of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), a national organization of professors, students, and interested others who are dedicated to academic freedom, free speech, and reasoned debate on university campuses. You can learn more about our organization At the outset I want to state that while Professor Flanagan is a member of our board of directors, he had no role in writing this letter or in board discussions concerning this case.

We write to express our concern with your remarks that you posted on the university’s website, Feb. 28. Specifically, you said:

Comments made by Tom Flanagan in Lethbridge yesterday absolutely do not represent the views of the University of Calgary. In the university’s view, 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 defenseless children.

These remarks undermine academic freedom on your campus and send a discouraging message to the university community that the academic right to speak candidly about controversial topics may run afoul of the university’s views on a range of social issues. In our experience, university presidents rightly do not claim that their universities hold views on controversial issues. For example, Martha Piper, former president of the University of British Columbia, faced with a controversial statement by a UBC faculty member said in a speech at the Liu Centre at UBC on October 9, 2001:

In all this it must be emphasized that the University as an institution holds no “views.” I have often been asked what is the “University's” view on a variety of controversial issues―abortion, for example, or Aboriginal land claims, or provincial tax policy. What needs to be understood is that there is no such thing as a “University” view on such issues; rather, the University is a community of scholars with a wide range of views and opinions. Accordingly, the view of one scholar cannot and does not represent the view of the University.

It is clear to us that this statement is the correct position for a university president to take when confronted with controversial statements made by a member of faculty.

We would also note that your comments declaring that U of C, as an institution, has an opinion on child pornography, implies that Professor Flanagan is in opposition to the university’s position, and leaves the clear impression that he supports child pornography and the exploitation of children.

It is obvious that Professor Flanagan does not support child pornography, because, as he wrote in his National Post op-ed (March 4), he endorses jail sentences for the production and delivery of child pornography. He further explained that what he was trying to do at the Lethbridge talk was raise the question of whether the best way to deal with consumers of child pornography was to incarcerate them rather than provide them with counseling.

In short, President Cannon, you censured one of your professors for expressing an opinion. Such an act is contrary to the purpose of the university. Again, quoting Martha Piper in the same speech we referred to earlier:

The institution’s role is to provide a forum for the free exchange of ideas, so that through critical analysis and discussion we may move closer to an understanding of our problems, and–we hope–to the discovery of solutions.

Academic freedom simply refers to the protection of professors and their institutions from political interference. It asserts that in the university, unconventional ideas and controversial opinions deserve special protection.

We ask that you post on your university’s website a re-affirmation of your and U of C’s commitment to academic freedom. In addition, posting an apology to Professor Flanagan for violating his academic freedom would repair some of the damage done by your previously posted comments.

Clive Seligman, President
cc: Professor Tom Flanagan