Case of fired FAU professor may hinge on single document

9:28 a.m. Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 Politics
Fired FAU professor James Tracy, right, arrives at federal court in West Palm Beach with his attorney Wednesday morning, Dec. 6, for his wrongful termination lawsuit against the university. Tracy claims university administrators didn’t like his theories that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting never happened and instead was a charade perpetuated by the government to promote gun control. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Testimony could end today in a trial for fired Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy, who is hoping a jury will force university administrators to give him his job back and award him back pay based on claims they fired him because of conspiracy theories he expressed about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and other events on his personal blog.

Tracy’s attorneys rested their case after more than a week of testimony that featured two university administrators and Tracy himself, although FAU’s attorneys also played a taped pretrial interview of Tracy for jurors before calling other school officials and a pair of faculty union leaders to the witness stand as the case shifted to the defense.

School officials have argued that Tracy’s January 2016 firing was for insubordination and had nothing to do with his controversial views or the backlash the university had suffered since 2013, when Tracy’s blog posts calling the Newtown, Conn., shooting a hoax made him the subject of international headlines and embroiled him in a public feud with parents of one of the shooting victims.

A large part of the case has hinged on a single document — a form that FAU faculty members like Tracy were required to fill out to notify the school administrators of work, especially paid work, they were doing outside the university.

University administrators said they fired Tracy after he repeatedly refused to file the form in connection with his blog, titled Memory Hole. Tracy said he was confused about whether the blog rose to the level of the type of activity he needed to report.

In Tracy’s recorded statement, defense attorney G. Joseph Curley’s voice sounded openly incredulous as he quizzed Tracy on whether he received any money for the essays on his blog, some of which appeared in a book claiming the Sandy Hook shooting never happened.

“It was a labor of love?” Curley asked.

“It was the labor of a scholar,” Tracy responded.

Tracy, university officials said, was required to report any paid work he did outside the university, and his blog featured a “Donate” button and a request for a $1,000 gift. But Tracy said his work had gone largely unpaid, calling the estimated $2,500 her received from the blog a “paltry sum” he didn’t believe he had to report.

In the recorded interview played for jurors, Tracy said he believed proceeds from the Sandy Hook book that featured his essays has gone to his defense fund, which was established after he was fired. In other blog entries, the communications professor disputed government and media accounts of other events, including the John F. Kennedy assassination and the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings.

The paperwork by the end of 2015 was a formality because by then, a January 2013 news article had already highlighted Tracy’s views and made him the subject of headlines that had angry emails and calls pouring into the university.

Had Tracy truly been confused or felt university officials were wrong to discipline him for not filling out the paperwork, university administrators say, the 11-year tenured professor could have filled out a complaint instead of ignoring their requests, knowing it could cost him his job.

That issue became a point of contention between Tracy’s attorneys and Robert Zoeller, president of the FAU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, a faculty union for which Tracy himself once served as president.

One of Tracy’s attorneys, Louis Leo, IV, pointed to an email where Zoeller characterized some complaints from Tracy as “ungreivable.” The statement goes to the heart of Tracy’s claims that union leaders worked with university officials to get him fired.

On the witness stand, however, Zoeller bristled at suggestions that he barred Tracy from filing a complaint or gave him bad advice.

“I wouldn’t have the authority to tell him not to file a grievance. As past president of the union, he would know that,” Zoeller said.

Earlier Thursday, defense attorneys played a recorded statement from Michael Moats, a regional union official who said he advised Tracy against trying to make his case against the university a First Amendment issue, a statement FAU officials hope will back their claims that Tracy’s firing had nothing to do with the content of his blog

Diane Alperin, who back then was the school’s vice provost, and Heather Coltman, the former dean of the college of arts and letters and Tracy’s former direct supervisor, each spent hours on the witness stand this week going over emails and documents they exchanged with Tracy and among themselves.

Defense attorneys on Thursday had also planned to present to jurors a recorded interview of Tracy’s former union-hired attorney, Thomas Johnson, but they decided against after a series of rulings from U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg, who has been presiding over the case that began with jury selection last week.

Aside from trying to get his job back, Tracy’s attorneys are asking jurors to force FAU to give him back pay as well as an unspecified amount of money for damages.

Attorneys for FAU expected to call their last witness this morning.

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