Open Letter to IRPP Editor Bruce Wallace Regarding Tom Flanagan

Dear Bruce Wallace,

My name is Dave Snow, and I am a fourth-year PhD candidate in political science at the University of Calgary. Like many in my department and around the country, I have been closely following the fallout from Tom Flanagan’s February 27 comments at the University of Lethbridge regarding child pornography. As a long-time reader of Policy Options, I was dismayed when I read Jonathan Kay and Terence Corcoran’s National Post article, which stated that, as Policy Options editor, you decided not to print Dr. Flanagan’s forthcoming article on the Calgary Centre by-election because of his Lethbridge comments. I was even more bemused by your response to their article, which was so problematic that it I felt it necessary to voice my displeasure.

Most egregiously, you deliberately misled your readership about the nature of Dr. Flanagan’s comments. You wrote that he said child pornography was a “victimless crime,” and that viewing child pornography is “an activity without victims.” He said no such thing. Dr. Flanagan said that he was concerned about “to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person.” This is an empirical statement about the relationship between the viewer and the person(s) in the material, one which does not negate the possibility of victims. It is logically consistent to believe that while viewing child pornography does not physically harm the person(s) depicted in the material, the act of viewing child pornography could increase the number of victims by reinforcing production and consumption more broadly.

Of course, one could deny that position, as I’m sure you would, by taking a broader definition of “harm” than direct physical harm. Yet surely this is a debatable, rebuttable position. The extent to which something is “harmful” has been the subject of academic and philosophical debate for centuries. The fact that you and Dr. Flanagan may disagree on what constitutes “harm” in no way requires him to believe that viewing child pornography is a “victimless crime.” Indeed, Dr. Flanagan’s subsequent clarification that there was “a distinction between direct harm and indirect harm” makes this precise point. However, in lieu of recognizing this distinction, you put words into his mouth in a way that distorted his actual comments. That this was done in a letter that chastised two journalists for not following “basic tenets of journalism” in a manner meant to “deceive readers” is a rich irony.

In addition, you claimed that you did not print Dr. Flanagan’s article “because of a deep disagreement with the moral principles of a writer” rather than “difference of opinion on a question of policy.” This is a false dichotomy. Your October 2012 issue had a cover story about climate change, which many environmentalists view as a moral imperative. Your January 2013 issue contained an article on Stephen Harper’s pro-Israel policy, a project which many committed Israelis and Palestinians certainly view as one of moral principle. Your May 2012 issue contained an article arguing for “A Basic Annual Income for the Neurodevelopmentally Disabled in Canada.” Indeed, the first article I ever read from Policy Options, written in 1999 by my future dissertation supervisor Rainer Knopff, was “The Case for Domestic Partnership Laws,” in which Dr. Knopff made a case against legislative recognition of same-sex marriage.

All of the above articles clearly involve the articulation of “moral principles.” Yet Policy Options had no qualms about publishing them, many while you were editor. Does this mean that all of these authors share the same moral principles as the editor? If not, why were they accepted? More problematically, if so, what does it say about a publication that it only accepts articles from those scholars who see eye-to-eye with its editor on issues of moral policy?

I assume that your own policy preferences did not play a role in your decision to accept some of the above articles, even those that touched on moral issues; I sincerely hope that Policy Options does not reject articles with which its editor has an ideological disagreement. It is more likely that you decided not to publish Dr. Flanagan’s article based on political expediency, as Kay and Corcoran suggest. Because of this decision, the IRPP has utterly failed in its mission, which is ostensibly “generating research, providing insight and sparking debate on current and emerging policy issues facing Canadians and their governments.”

Rather than spark debate, you have attempted to suppress it. In doing so, you have done irreparable damage to a journal for which I used to have great respect. You ought to be ashamed.

Dave Snow