- Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Minutes after a federal jury rejected claims that Florida Atlantic University fired communications professor James Tracy because he publicly declared the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School a hoax, his attorney lashed out at the media, calling reporters “presstitutes.”
“Shame on you fake news,” attorney Louis Leo IV told news photographers and reporters who followed Tracy and him from the federal courthouse. Then, he hurled the invective: “Presstitutes.”
Later, in Twitter messages, the founder of the Florida Civil Rights Coalition continued the same theme: “Mindless presstitutes did everything they could to deny Prof. Tracy a fair trial. From misreporting Sandy Hook school shooting as if it actually happened, to misreporting what happened at trial. It’s amazing how easily so-called journalists disregard #FirstAmendment. #FakeNews,” Leo wrote.
Attorney Matthew Benzion, who also represents Tracy, vowed to appeal. Tracy, he insisted, was improperly fired for using his online blog to post opinions school administrators didn’t like about the Newtown, Conn. shooting that claimed the lives of 26 school children and teachers.
While Tracy and the eight jurors declined comment, a lawyer representing the university applauded the verdict that came after roughly three hours of deliberation following a seven-day trial.
“I could not be happier for FAU,” said attorney G. Joseph Curley, who represented the school that endured harsh criticism after news of Tracy’s controversial blog snared global headlines. “It’s been going on for years and it’s time the record got set straight.”
While Tracy was seeking reinstatement, back pay and an unspecified amount in damages, the jury wasn’t asked to decide those issues. Any compensation Tracy received would have been decided later by U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg.
The jury’s task was only to decide if the university fired Tracy for expressing what many considered outlandish views on a blog he dubbed Memory Hole.
Jurors were first asked to decide whether Tracy’s blog posts were “a motivating factor” in the university’s decision to fire the professor from his 11-year tenured position. If they answered that question yes, they were to decide if the school would have terminated Tracy if he hadn’t publicized his conspiracy theories.
Since they answered no to the first question, they didn’t have to answer the second one. By deciding that Tracy’s blogs weren’t a “motivating factor” for university officials, they apparently accepted FAU’s claims that Tracy was fired for failing to fill out a mandatory form reporting his outside activity to his bosses.
During closing arguments, Curley pointed out that university officials never asked Tracy to stop blogging about Sandy Hook. In fact, he said, for three years they allowed him to post similar opinions about various national tragedies, including the Kennedy assassination and the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings. He was fired in January 2016 after he repeatedly ignored requests from superiors to submit the outside employment form, Curley said.
“Professor Tracy doesn’t follow the rules,” Curley told jurors. “They’re rules that everyone else follows. He doesn’t play by the rules.”
As a former president of the school faculty union, Tracy knew he had to report his work on the blog that generated at least $1,000 in donations from his 10,000 followers, Curley said. His posts were also incorporated into a book, “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.” He also used university equipment for his personal podcast, Real Politik.
Benzion declared the university’s disciplinary process “a farce.” FAU officials thought Tracy was “a nut job,” a term then-Dean Heather Coltman used to describe him in an email after he was fired. “They didn’t like his speech and they wanted him gone,” Benzion said.
Outside the courthouse, Curley expressed sympathy for parents who lost children in the Sandy Hook shooting and found themselves accused of being part of what Tracy labeled a staged event designed by the government to promote gun control.
In a letter to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Tracy’s attorneys claimed led to his firing, the parents of a 6-year-old boy who was fatally shot at Sandy Hook described the anguish the professor’s posts caused them. In the letter, parents Lenny and Veronique Pozner urged FAU to fire Tracy.
‘The heartache of burying a child is a sorrow we would not wish upon anyone,” the couple wrote in December 2015. “Yet to our horror, we have found that there are some in this society who lack empathy for the suffering of others. Among them are the conspiracy theorists that deny our tragedy was real. They seek us out and accuse us of being government agents who are faking our grief and lying about our loss.”
Hours after the Pozners’ letter was posted on the newspaper’s web site, university officials began drafting Tracy’s notice of termination, said Benzion. “They decided right then and there, he’s fired,” Benzion told jurors.
But, Curley countered, the timing was coincidental. University officials were already preparing the letter, he said.
Despite Benzion’s pledge to appeal the verdict, Curley said the trial will hopefully close an unfortunate chapter in FAU’s history. At about the same time debate raged about Tracy’s blog, the school endured a firestorm of complaints after an instructor asked students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and stomp on it. The exercise was to illustrate the power of words but it was widely viewed as an attack on Christianity.
Still, Curley told jurors, what is known as the “Stomp On Jesus” incident illustrates the school’s tolerance. The instructor, he said, still works at the university.