In the early part of 2013, as Florida Atlantic University faculty and students alike were still reeling from the international attention the school was receiving because of professor James Tracy’s controversial blog Memory Hole, former school administrator Heather Coltman said it hardly seemed the right time to press Tracy about filling out a required form letting the faculty know about the blog.
Three years later, however, the failure to fill out that form became the basis for Tracy’s firing. And on Tuesday, it became the focus of testimony in a U.S. District Court trial over Tracy’s quest to get his job back and back pay and damages from the employers his lawyers say fired him for simply exercising his First Amendment rights.
Both Diane Alperin, who was the school’s vice provost when Tracy was fired, and Coltman, Tracy’s direct supervisor as dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the time, told jurors on Tuesday that Tracy was fired for insubordination after repeatedly refusing to fill out a form disclosing his work on Memory Hole. University administrators said he was required to fill out the form because he had a donation button on the blog, where, among other claims, he wrote his beliefs that the 2012 massacre at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax.
But back in 2013, as calls and emails poured into the school from around the world and reporters showed up to the school in droves, Coltman said she overlooked Tracy’s refusal to fill out the paperwork and focused instead on urging him to put disclaimers up on his blog to let readers know that his views did not reflect the views of his employers.
“By not disciplining Dr. Tracy back then for not reporting his blog, were they [university officials] acquiescing to his position?” one of Tracy’s attorneys, Matthew Benzoin asked, later asking: “Do you think it made him believe he was right?”
“I don’t know if I can convey to you the intensity of what was going on this campus,” Coltman said, adding that she thought Tracy would eventually fill out the document.
Had he simply filled out the form, Alperin testified earlier Tuesday, university officials would have cleared the endeavor and allowed him to continue his duties as an associate professor. Instead, Alperin said, he repeatedly ignored supervisors’ demands that he disclose any outside paid work or work that could conflict with his obligations at the school — a requirement for all faculty.
“I think he had been asked to do something for two months, and I can’t think of another company that would allow someone to refuse a supervisor’s directive for that long,” Alperin, now the school’s senior adviser for academic affairs, said Tuesday.
Alperin said university officials had made filling out appropriate disclosure forms a priority after a school official discovered that a professor in the school’s engineering department had been doing outside work helping another organization apply for grants.
Alperin estimated the school received thousands of angry emails after a South Florida Sun-Sentinel article about his blog sparked international headlines. On his blog, Tracy was openly incredulous of government and media accounts that the Sandy Hook school shooting left 26 children and teachers dead.
And his posts were regularly picked up by the Canadian-based website, Global Research, operated by well-known conspiracy theorist Michel Chossudovsky, whose views include claims that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were a CIA-backed plot.
University officials were at one point concerned for Tracy’s safety after the backlash, Alperin said, adding that his response to it all took her by surprise.
“I don’t know, he didn’t react as if he was terribly concerned, but that just may be the way he responds,” Alperin said.
The decision to fire Tracy came after he repeatedly refused to fill out the required forms about his outside work, and after he partially complied with the request and revealed he was using university equipment to produce a podcast. She said administrators were also concerned that disclaimers that eventually appeared on his blog were too late and few.
Tracy’s attorneys say the timing of the firing came after a public backlash that included an open letter from the parents of one of the Sandy Hook victims.
Coltman, who left FAU early this year to take a job as provost of James Madison University, will return to the witness stand Wednesday. The trial is expected to end next week.