When word leaked out that Florida Atlantic University communications professor James Tracy was publicly claiming the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax, complaints poured into the Boca Raton-based school, a top FAU administrator told a federal jury Monday.
Students, faculty, community residents, alumni and donors weighed in, demanding the ouster of the 11-year tenured professor, said Diane Alperin, a former vice provost who has worked at the university for 38 years. News accounts about Tracy’s blog posts, questioning the veracity of media and government accounts of the shooting that left 26 children and teachers dead, circled the globe.
Under questioning from Tracy’s attorney Matthew Benzion, Alperin acknowledged “a lot of it wasn’t positive.”
Still, contrary to claims Tracy made while testifying for nearly 13 hours over three days, Alperin insisted school officials didn’t fire him for his controversial claims about the Newtown, Conn. shooting.
“We never stopped him from working on his blog or teaching in the classroom,” Alperin, now senior advisor of academic affairs, told jurors. “We believe in the First Amendment. We never stopped his speech.”
Benzion responded: “You just fired him.”
The exchange was a rare display of emotion during a day of often tedious testimony in which Alperin was quizzed about the university’s claims that Tracy was fired for insubordination after repeatedly refusing to fill out mandatory forms about his outside activity.con
Alperin repeatedly said she couldn’t answer many of Benzion’s questions because Tracy’s immediate supervisors were the ones who urged him to fill out the forms and answered the professor’s questions about why his work on his largely unpaid blog, dubbed Memory Hole, triggered the reporting requirement.
Having worked as both an associate and vice provost during the three years the controversy raged before Tracy was fired in January 2016, Alperin said she wasn’t directly involved in discussions with Tracy or emails and letters exchanged with him.
But she said the fact that university officials didn’t fire Tracy immediately after it learned about his blog shores up the school’s claims that there was no effort to silence his controversial views. “He was allowed to blog, as you would say, during 2013, 2014 and 2015,” Alperin told Benzion.
Questions about the dizzying array of emails and letters between Tracy and his bosses consumed much of the afternoon.
Alperin is to remain on the witness stand today to be questioned by attorneys representing FAU. Former Dean Heather Coltman, who had direct contact with Tracy and wrote his notice of termination, is also to testify.
Tracy, who was supported in court Monday by a man wearing a “Conspiracy Theorist” T-shirt, is seeking reinstatement, back pay and an unspecified amount in damages. The trial is expected to go to the jury for deliberations next week.