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“He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”
That was former public safety minister Vic Toews’ retort to Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, when grilled about a plan to expand police access to private computers.

The minister was wrong, of course. No one stood with the pornographers, but a lot of people weren’t happy with granting greater snooping rights to authorities.

The us-or-them scenario arose again a year later, but this time from a different perspective. Political scientist Tom Flanagan was caught on video questioning child pornography laws, and whatever remained of his reputation practically vanished overnight.

Flanagan, a former chief of staff for Stephen Harper, is no stranger to controversy. He has a reputation for blurting offhanded opinions offensive to common sensibilities. And he has few fans among the aboriginal community for his unconventional stance on native affairs.

It all came to a head in February 2013, when Flanagan was giving a talk in Lethbridge to university students. One audience member asked about his stand on child pornography. The professor replied that he doesn’t think people should be jailed “for their taste in pictures” — and even suggested viewing child pornography doesn’t hurt anyone.

You can’t unsay that. When the video clip was posted online, it went viral. Within hours, Flanagan was disowned by the Prime Minister’s Office and by Alberta’s Wildrose Party. CBC fired him as an on-air panellist. Even the president of the University of Calgary, where Flanagan taught, disassociated the institution from his opinion.

This month, Flanagan launched a book called “Persona Non Grata” in an attempt to put the affair in context.

First, let’s be clear: his suggestion that viewing child porn doesn’t hurt anyone needs no context. It’s offensive — and wrong in so many ways.

But his questions about whether jail time is excessive for those who only view it were fair, given it was uttered in an academic setting where provocative statements are frequently tossed out to spur debate. He had no quarrel with the need to criminalize child sexual abuse in all its forms.

Academic freedom is a curious thing.

When a University of Saskatchewan dean was abruptly fired last week for speaking out against budget cuts, the public outcry was swift. It was a blatant attack on free speech and, since the man had tenure, quite possibly illegal.

The dean’s tenure was restored — though his administrative position wasn’t reinstated; one of the people behind the scandal resigned and the president of the university was fired Wednesday. In this case, public outcry helped right a wrong.

Flanagan is no saint, and his views are unsavoury to many. Perhaps he deserved the nosedive in public credibility.

But free speech is most critical when what’s being said is not what you want to hear. Flanagan should at least have been given a chance to explain himself to the crowd before they broke out the tar and feathers.

Organizations: Wildrose Party, CBC, University of Calgary University of Saskatchewan

Geographic location: Lethbridge, Alberta

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