- Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
James Tracy insists Florida Atlantic University officials fired him from his tenured teaching position because of his conspiracy-laced rants about the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed the lives of 26 students and teachers.
But on Thursday, the first day of trial in his wrongful termination lawsuit against the university that is framed as a fight for free speech, the former communications professor shared few of his controversial theories with a federal jury that will decide whether school officials fired him because they didn’t like his views — a violation of his First Amendment rights.
During roughly five hours of testimony, Tracy offered only a brief explanation for why he joined other conspiracy theorists who believe the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. was a hoax. He acknowledged that some of the missives he posted on his blog, Memory Hole, were included in the book, “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.”
Further, he told jurors that his entries were regularly picked up by the Canadian-based website, Global Research. Jurors, however, weren’t told that the site is operated by well-known conspiracy theorist Michel Chossudovsky, who is known for espousing unconventional and unproven views about numerous global events, notably that the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were a CIA-backed plot.
Instead of focusing on Tracy’s writings, which the professor declared were “constitutionally protected speech,” he and his legal team worked to debunk university claims that he was fired because he refused to follow the rules.
In opening statements, an attorney representing the university balked at Tracy’s insistence that he was punished for his views. While attorney G. Joseph Curley described Tracy’s theories about the tragedy as “distasteful,” he insisted that didn’t prompt university officials to fire Tracy in January 2016, ending his 11-year career as a tenured professor.
“This isn’t playtime for Florida Atlantic University,” Curley told the jury. “They’ve been accused of violating the First Amendment. That’s a serious charge for a public institution.”
While many might believe that Tracy deserved to be fired for promoting wild, unsubstantiated theories about such a tragic event, Curley insisted university officials respected Tracy’s First Amendment rights. “What they wouldn’t let him do is violate the rules that affect not just him but everybody,” he said.
Despite urging from Associate Provost Diane Alperin and Dean Heather Coltman, Tracy refused to fill out a mandatory form alerting his bosses about his outside activity. Tracy published several articles a week on his blog, which had 10,000 followers. He solicited $1,000 in donations from those who read it. He also violated school rules by using university equipment to write his blog and produce a related podcast, Curley said.
Tracy insisted he tried to follow the rules. But, he said, they were confusing. Since writing the blog was a pastime that he wrote for pleasure not for pay, he said he didn’t believe he had to fill out the document most knew as an “outside employment form.”
Writing the blog, he said, didn’t conflict with his job teaching a variety of a communications classes, including one that explored the culture of conspiracy. He said he never shared his blog with students. And, he said, since its inception in March 2012, he put a disclaimer on it, advising readers that his views didn’t reflect those of the university.
The blog went unnoticed by his bosses until he posted his thoughts about Sandy Hook. Initially, the father of four said he didn’t pay much attention to the tragedy. But, he said, with his wife and then 7-year-old daughter traumatized by it, he began investigating what happened.
“Looking at mainstream media coverage, there were a number of anomalies and missing information,” he said “It caused me to look at the event more closely. Normal emergency protocols were abandoned.”
With those lapses in mind, he said he questioned why the parents of the slain children wouldn’t have sued the state of Connecticut or the school system. He wrote that the shooting was staged to promote gun control.
His views attracted the attention of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The story it wrote — that he decried as sensational and inaccurate — made headlines throughout the globe. Complaints poured into FAU, demanding his ouster.
During the next three years, he said, he was reprimanded several times for violating university rules. He read aloud numerous letters and emails he wrote Coltman and other supervisors, trying to get them to reconsider.
Reading a letter he wrote shortly before he was fired, he collapsed in tears. “I’m sorry,” he told jurors after he stopped sobbing. “I haven’t read that since November of 2015.”
Tracy is to return to the witness stand today to be questioned by Curley. Tracy is seeking reinstatement, back pay and an unspecified amount in damages. The trial is to wrap up next week.