Ex-FAU prof on trial tries to downplay attack on Sandy Hook parents

11:18 p.m Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 Local
Fired Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy (right) arrives at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach with a member of his legal team on Thursday, November 30, 2017 in his quest to get his job back amid claims that university officials conspired to fire him because of his controversial views about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Upset that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published a letter from parents who lost their son in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Florida Atlantic University professor James Tracy dashed off a retort, disputing the couple’s claims that he compounded their pain by declaring the mass shooting a hoax.

“The Pozners, alas, are as phony as the drill itself and profiting handsomely from the fake death of their son,” Tracy wrote in a December 2015 response to the letter by Leonard and Veronique Pozner, whose 6-year-old son was among the 26 killed in the Newtown, Conn. shooting.

Tracy’s missive, shown Friday to a federal jury that is deciding whether FAU was justified in firing the communications professor weeks after he wrote the newspaper, illustrated the depths of his views that the shooting never happened and instead was a charade perpetuated by the government to promote gun control.

In the letter, he refers to findings in the book, “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.” The book, which included about 120 pages of blog entries Tracy posted online, “demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt the school had been closed by 2008, which means there were no children there for Adam Lanza to have shot,” he wrote, referring to the man who killed himself after opening fire at the elementary school.

Since the trial began Thursday, Tracy has spent roughly 11 hours on the witness stand and is to continue testifying on Monday. Framing his lawsuit as a fight for free speech, Tracy claims university administrators didn’t like his theories about the shooting and fired him in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights. He is seeking reinstatement, back pay and an unspecified amount in damages.

University officials deny his allegations, arguing instead that the 11-year tenured professor was fired because he was insubordinate. He refused to follow rules that govern all faculty members, they claim.

Attorney G. Joseph Curley, who represents FAU, used the book, the blog and the letter Tracy wrote to the newspaper to bolster FAU’s claims that Tracy violated university policies by repeatedly refusing to fill out mandatory forms divulging his outside activities to superiors.

In a dramatic move, Curley plunked four cartons of documents on the courtroom floor. The cartons, roughly the size of wine boxes, contained 10,000 pages of articles Tracy posted on his blog, dubbed Memory Hole, from March 2012 until he was fired in January 2016, Curley said. A 26-page list of the articles include ones that dispute media and government accounts of various tragedies, including the John F. Kennedy assassination and the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings.

One of the reasons university officials want professors to report their outside activities is to assure professors are fully committed to teaching, Curley said.

While Tracy agreed that was one of the university’s aims, he disputed the notion that the blog interfered with his work. He said he spent about an hour a day working on the blog and accused Curley of trying to deceive the jury. Many of the documents in the boxes were probably articles written by others that he posted or were comments from readers. Curley included them, he said, “for purposes of deception.”

Still, Tracy tried to walk back his attack on the Pozners. “I was distraught,” he told the jury. But when asked if it was true that the Pozner’s son, Noah, had been shot at Sandy Hook, he stuck by his conspiracy theory. “Reportedly, yes,” he said.

He acknowledged the letter he sent the Sun-Sentinel was “too harsh” and later sent one that was less inflammatory. Much of the original letter, he said, was written by one of the co-authors of the book, “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.” He said he merely edited it and sent it, but later had regrets.

Tracy also tried to distance himself from the book, claiming he had little to do with it. Curley pointed out that Tracy’s biography in the book identifies him as an FAU professor. That violated an agreement he made with university officials in 2013 after they learned that he was writing a blog about his Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, Curley said. To escape disciplinary action, Tracy agreed not to use his status as an FAU professor when writing for outside publications.

Curley also claimed Tracy violated university rules that require faculty members to report outside income. While Tracy acknowledged he received about $2,500 in donations from those who read his blog, he said he didn’t believe he had to report it. “It was a paltry sum,” he said.

He also downplayed his use of university equipment for his podcast, Real Politik, that he did in conjunction with the blog. “It’s regarded as being incidental use,” he said, insisting his occasional use of FAU computers for his podcast was permitted without approval from higher ups.

While occasionally showing exasperation at Curley’s questions, Tracy testified in a steady voice. The father of four calmly described the media firestorm that erupted when his conspiracy theories about the school shooting were discovered. He recalled twice rejecting requests to appear on CNN.

But, he said, he didn’t spurn all media invitations. He said appeared on several radio programs, including one hosted by Alex Jones. The founder of Infowars.com also questions the veracity of reports about Sandy Hook and other national events. The Texan catapulted onto the national stage after reports surfaced about his close relationship with President Donald Trump.