A 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 defending him.
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 a pretext.”
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 January.
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.