Let Flanagan's remarks die

UCalgary prof wasn't inciting violence, just making a really horrible joke

Already a rather controversial character in Canadian politics, Tom Flanagan got himself in hot water again this week over his remarks about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

When asked what he thought of the Wikileaks revelations in a panel interview on CBC’s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon on Monday, the University of Calgary professor and former senior advisor to the prime minister said that Assange should be assassinated, in what seemed to be an attempt at humour. Flanagan has since apologized for his remarks, saying that he never “seriously intended to advocate or propose the assassination of Mr. Assange,” he told the CBC.

Assange and his lawyer don’t seem to be taking Flanagan’s comments in jest, calling for Flanagan to be charged with incitement to commit murder.

Coming from someone with such an extensive political background, I can’t imagine what Flanagan was thinking. Joking about the assassination of a major public figure is terrible coming from anyone, but it is particularly shocking coming from someone who should be an expert in what not to say. However, considering it was obviously a bad joke and not a serious incitation to commit violence, maybe it’s time for everyone to move on.

Flanagan’s comments have since been denounced by the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, and alumni from the U of C are petitioning the university’s president, Elizabeth Cannon to take disciplinary action against Flanagan.

The letter to Cannon, penned by Kris Kotarski, a writer who contributes a bi-weekly column for the Calgary Herald, stated that Flanagan “should understand that academic freedom is not possible without political freedom, and that political freedom cannot survive in a climate where journalists and opponents of a ruling regime hear public intellectuals advocate for their assassination on the nightly news.”

Kotarski and the undersigned alumni are asking Cannon to publicly distance themselves from Flanagan’s comments, condemn him in the harshest possible terms, and censure him for hurting the university’s reputation.

A university spokesperson has stated that they’re not currently planning on reprimanding him, explaining that Flanagan was representing himself on the CBC, not the university, and has a right to his opinion. The Conservative party has also been trying to distance themselves from Flanagan, saying that he hasn’t worked for the Conservative party for years.

In the video footage of the interview, Flanagan’s comments don’t come off as if he’s seriously advocating for the swift assassination of Assange. They come off as something your conservative uncle would say in a drunken argument over an awkward family dinner. The difference is that Tom Flanagan is not your drunk, conservative uncle, he’s a prominent academic and someone who is often associated with the prime minister. He should have known better than to make a joke about assassinating the founder of WikiLeaks on the CBC.

I agree that the university should distance themselves as much as possible from Flanagan’s remarks, and make it clear to the public that they don’t condone what he said. I’m also not defending his remarks in any way. Yet to censure him for what seems like a joke gone horribly wrong seems like a bit of an overreaction.

In a couple weeks, most people will forget Flanagan’s remarks on their own. However, if the university censures him, it will make it much harder for people to let Flanagan’s remarks die, considering it would probably be a huge news story itself. That will only draw stronger connections between his assassination comment and the U of C, something those petitioning for his condemnation probably don’t want.

Related: Flanagan should quit comedy, stick to politics

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