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Tom Flanagan & The Consequences Of Free Speech

“Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself.  It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”

– Potter Stewart


I have come to appreciate through the course of my life that life, in fact, has a somewhat perverse sense of humour at times. As I was finishing yesterday’s article on free speech, a well-known Canadian television personality and university professor was making comments about child pornography that would test my belief in my own words.

Dr. Tom Flanagan was speaking at the University of Lethbridge when he made this comment among others.

“I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures,”

He went on to suggest that merely viewing child pornography was basically a victimless crime which we all know is not true.

Children do not volunteer to participate in the production of child porn. They are forced or coerced into it, often kidnapped from their families or sometimes sold by them and subjected to horrendous and degrading abuse. There is no defense for child pornography – none – and Dr. Flanagan’s remarks were properly criticized and condemned.

But while I will not defend Dr. Flanagan or his remarks, I will defend his right to speak them.

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”.”-Noam Chomsky

I seldom agree with anything Mr. Chomsky says or writes but we are in unison on this. It isn’t possible to be a little bit pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t. It is the same things with freedom of speech. We cannot have the right to speak our opinions freely if we are only prepared to grant that right to those who don’t offend us.

In the interest of disclosure, I was sexually molested by two different sexual predators as a child. As a result, I have no tolerance for anything that harms a child and a considerable personal understanding of the damage that is done by pedophiles. I found Dr. Flanagan’s remarks ill-considered and repugnant.

But in Canada, we have the right to voice our opinions, no matter how despicable or poorly thought out. We do not have the right not to be offended.

Pro-life student groups have ignored the rights of pro-life groups to voice their opinion through the formation of organizations and rallies because they find the pro life position morally offensive. That is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees the right of free speech and assembly to “everyone”, not just those with whom we agree or who don’t annoy us.

Activist groups like Occupy routinely mobbed meetings and assemblies being held by government departments and other groups with which they disagreed, often disrupting the meeting to the point that it had to be suspended. That too is a violation of everyone’s guaranteed rights. No amount of rationalization about how wrong the participants in that meeting might be on an issue legitimizes the violation of their fundamental charter rights.

The suppression of fundamental rights in others that we demand for ourselves is not democracy – it is fascism and I would rather live in a society where some people sometimes speak ignorantly than one in which some people are randomly oppressed.

Tom Flanagan said things that were ridiculously naïve at best and callously reprehensible at worst. He has rightly been criticized for his remarks and fired from the CBC and his association with the Wildrose Party in Alberta. His own university has issued a statement condemning his remarks as have former colleagues in the Conservative Party.

While I defend his right to have said what he said, I applaud the consequences of his remarks. It is our right to speak freely but there is no right that guarantees avoiding the consequences of what we say.

And that, my friends, is the entire point.

Tom Flanagan said repugnant things although I believe he spoke carelessly rather than deliberately. But because we live in a society where freedom of speech is a right for all, his remarks are out in the open where we can assess them and where they can be criticized and Mr. Flanagan forced to face the consequences of his words. There are some now suggesting that people have overreacted to his comments but that’s free speech in action. As Dr. Flanagan is entitled to his opinion so to are those who disagree with him. Free speech isn’t always a tidy, polite business.

“Freedom of speech does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit.” ― Jim C. Hines


Censoring those who speak despicable, stupid and politically incorrect opinions drives their thoughts and their words into the shadows where we cannot see them and that prevents us from confronting and combating them.

We are safer when we can hear what is being said, no matter how provocative or disgusting, than we are when we have no idea what is being said.

Restricting free speech is oppression and oppression of one idea or comment today can just as easily be the oppression or censorship of another tomorrow. Oppression is like anything, it gets easier the more it is done.

In the end, we have a choice between respecting the fundamental right of free speech or allowing ever-more censorship to provide us with the delusion that somehow we have rooted out and are safe from stupid, hurtful speech.

For me, the choice is clear. I would rather live in a society where some people say stupid and hurtful things than one in which what people can or cannot say is censored because I would rather have to deal with being offended than oppressed.

“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.”– Benjamin Franklin


 Fighting The Free Speech Paradox


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  • fhl

    very thoughtful Thank you

  • thymara

    your opinion on the Supreme Court ruling wrt the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code? it seems that they have ruled, in the words of others, “The Supreme Court of Canada has weakened freedom of religion and freedom of speech in favour of the counterfeit human right not to be offended,” Levant told The CJN. – See more at: http://www.cjnews.com/index.php?q=node/103150#sthash.kbVXCjm5.dpuf

    btw I’m always leery about viewing your content because of the open automatically video and audio, which I don’t know how to prevent,

    • http://abearsrant.com thebear

      The only open automatically video is the music video at the bottom of the page on the right. Simply hover your cursor over the video and a menu will appear at the bottom where you can turn the video off.

      • RunningWithTheWolves

        Hello! When I view your web page, the,”Associated Press News Minute, Making News in South Africa, CBC News Whipool, Today in History, and Song of the Day,” are all blank green boxes, except for the heading on the top of each one. I am perplexed why, and want to see what I am missing! The rest of the page comes out just fine. Thank you……..and good evening….

        • http://abearsrant.com thebear

          You are probably using Internet Explorer as your browser. For reasons we haven’t yet been able to determine, the web site is not displaying properly in Explorer. We have been able to resolve some of the issues, like getting the right hand column with the videos to actually appear on the page now but we still can’t determine what is preventing the videos themselves from being seen. The site works perfectly in all other browsers. We do have people working on it and hope to have it figured out soon.

          • RunningWithTheWolves

            That explains it! Thank you very much for your reply.

      • thymara

        I use Safari on OS X 10.8.2 and 4 (possibly 5) videos / audios all start to play and have to be stopped individually. Not only that but any refresh or view of a recent post and they all start yet again.

        • thymara

          I have used clicktoflash to stop the sound. this impacts more than just your posts but at least I’m no longer blown out of my chair from the sudden sound

        • http://abearsrant.com thebear

          that is the first time that issue has been reported. All videos are set to ‘non-auto’ play.

  • http://gogreygirl.wordpress.com/ Margie

    “My words were badly chosen, and in the resulting uproar I was not able to express my abhorrence of child pornography and the sexual abuse of children. I apologize unreservedly to all who were offended by my statement, and most especially to victims of sexual abuse and their families.” Statement posted by Tom Flanagan on CBC’s Inside Politics blog.

    No one is going to believe he is sincere, are they?

    “And just as we insist on a presumed-innocent standard in criminal trials, a similar presumption of innocence should exist before we kill someone’s career and reputation. That’s the very least that every single one of us would ask for in similar circumstances, as we watched our whole life’s work hang in the balance.” Jonathan Kay, National Post

    • http://abearsrant.com thebear

      There is a difference between presumption of innocence until all evidence has been presented and adjudicated in a trial and responding to the things we say to each other. One of the downsides of free speech is that there are consequences to what we say. I don’t think Dr. Flanagan is a terrible person nor do I think he should be jailed, flogged or hung from a tree but he said (and not for the first time) a hurtful, stupid and repugnant thing. IN an open and free society, he has that right just as others have the same right to be disgusted by what he said and to speak out against it. That is freedom of speech guaranteed for everyone.

  • old white guy

    i agree.