makeshift memorial with crosses for the victims of the Sandy Hook
Elementary School shooting massacre stands outside a home in Newtown,
Conn. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
A tenured professor at Florida Atlantic University who was fired earlier
this year after writing that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary
School was an elaborate hoax has filed a lawsuit claiming his rights to
free speech, due process and academic freedom were violated.
James Tracy, who had been an associate professor, filed the lawsuit
Monday in federal court against the university, some of its leaders and
the faculty union representatives, challenging the constitutionality of
the university’s “conflict of interest/outside activities” policy,
charging the university violated its own principles of academic freedom
and broke its agreement with the faculty union. The lawsuit also accuses
the United Faculty of Florida, two of its officials and the Florida
Education Association of helping the university fire him rather than
Tracy’s case has been closely watched, by both free-speech and academic-freedom advocates and by people shocked by his views.
Tracy has questioned the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., when
police and media reported 27 people, including 20 young children, were
killed by a gunman who then shot himself. Tracy has written that it was
all a hoax staged in an effort to pass gun-control laws.
“Both Florida Atlantic University administrators and the University’s
faculty union claim they are committed to protecting constitutional
rights and principles of academic freedom, but their actions speak loud
and clear,” said Louis Leo IV of the Florida Civil Rights Coalition and
Medgebow Law, in a statement issued Tuesday.
“Tenure, free speech, due process and academic freedom are under attack.
Without judicial intervention, employees and faculty at Florida
Atlantic University and other universities around the United States,
will continue to be censored, deterred or chilled from sharing unpopular
information or or opinions for fear that they will be disciplined on
Joshua Glanzer, a spokesman for Florida Atlantic University, said in an
email Tuesday, “We do not comment on any pending litigation, and we have
yet to be served in this case.”
Tracy had been threatened by the the university with disciplinary action
in 2013, according to the case, but was successfully defended by union
representatives. He added language, suggested by the university,
according to the case, to his blog saying his writings were his opinions
and not those of any institution.
This winter, the parents of a 6-year-old boy who was killed at Sandy Hook, Lenny and Veronique Pozner, wrotein the Sun-Sentinel that
Tracy had harassed them for proof that the murder happened. They wrote
that although Tracy’s freedom of speech is protected, his job is not,
and said his position on the faculty at Florida Atlantic lent unmerited
credence to his views.
They wrote that conspiracy theorists who deny the tragedy was real “seek
us out and accuse us of being government agents who are faking our
grief and lying about our loss. …
“Tracy even sent us a certified letter demanding proof that Noah once
lived, that we were his parents, and that we were the rightful owner of
his photographic image,” they wrote. “We found this so outrageous and
unsettling that we filed a police report for harassment. Once Tracy
realized we would not respond, he subjected us to ridicule and contempt
on his blog, boasting to his readers that the ‘unfulfilled request’ was
‘noteworthy’ because we had used copyright claims to ‘thwart continued
research of the Sandy Hook massacre event.’ ”
Lenny Pozner declined to comment Tuesday.
He told The Washington Post in January that he often gets hateful
comments on social media, asking him how much he got paid for faking the
tragedy, for example, and someone telling him they wouldn’t be
satisfied “until all the coffins are opened.” After Tracy was fired, he
got several death threats, including a slur- and expletive-laced phone
message warning him to look behind him because he was going to die soon.
Within days after the Pozners’ piece ran, the university moved to terminate Tracy.
Leo wrote in an email that “the Pozners’ allegations are both false and
defamatory in that Dr. Tracy never harassed anyone. Quite the opposite
is true. Pozner was the one who harassed Dr. Tracy, through false
copyright infringement claims.” Leo included an explanation Tracy had
previously given that Lenny Pozner asked him to remove a photo of
Pozner’s son from a blog post in which Tracy wrote that an identical
image was used after a deadly attack on a school in Pakistan in 2014,
and that Tracy asked them to document their copyright claims.
Leo said that Tracy would not be available to comment Tuesday.
Soon after the Pozners’ piece had published, Tracy wrote an online post
re-asserting his beliefs that no one was killed in Newtown that day,
that “local co-conspirators” got financial benefits for faking grief and
that the parents were trying to get him fired.
“Do ‘the legitimate interests of the university’ include the pursuit of
truth?” he wrote. He gave examples of research about the “performance”
at Sandy Hook, such as, “no surge of EMTs in to the building, no string
of ambulances to take them to hospitals to be declared dead or alive, no
Med-Evac helicopter called to the scene, no 469 other students
evacuated and no bodies placed on the triage tarps outside. ”
Tracy earned his doctorate in mass communications at the University of
Iowa and specialized in communications, media studies and conspiracy
theories. He was hired in 2002 and granted tenure in 2008 by Florida
Atlantic, where he taught classes including “Culture of Conspiracy” and
was praised by Project Censored,
a group that highlights exposure of underreported or suppressed news,
for a story on wireless technology as a “looming health crisis.”
The university’s policies strongly
support academic freedom and pledge that the board of trustees, who are
named in the lawsuit, will defend the right of students and faculty to
learn and teach “ideas that might be unpopular or not in the mainstream
of accepted thought.”
But the lawsuit argues that the university’s policy about conflicts of
interest and outside activities is confusing and vague and is used to
restrict speech protected by the Constitution; it cites comments from a
faculty meeting in September at which professors objected to the
confusing nature of the policy and feeling they were being ordered to
get prior approval from the university before writing or expressing
personal opinions on topics unrelated to Florida Atlantic.
The lawsuit alleges that the union representatives did not respond to
the university’s intent to terminate, nor did they file a grievance on
Tracy’s behalf, and that as a result he was automatically terminated in
Representatives of the Florida
Education Association and United Faculty of Florida did not immediately
respond to requests for comments Tuesday. Tracy's lawsuit includes a call for his reinstatement on the faculty and compensation.