Florida Atlantic U. Disciplines Professor Who Questioned Accounts of Newtown Shootings

Florida Atlantic U.

James F. Tracy: "I don't really have any control over a media outlet that contacts me and wants to ask about my blog. I can't say to them, 'Refer to me as James F. Tracy, private citizen.'"
April 11, 2013

Florida Atlantic University has formally reprimanded a tenured professor for mentioning his institutional affiliation in blog posts in which he questioned official accounts of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn.

The university's decision to issue a letter of reprimand to James F. Tracy, an associate professor of communications, comes three months after the height of a public uproar over his blog posts, which questioned whether the December incident in Newtown took place as law-enforcement officials and the mainstream news media have described it. In the weeks after Mr. Tracy's initial posts, Florida Atlantic's administration resisted widespread calls to fire him but distanced itself from his controversial remarks.

The administration's willingness to stand behind the professor, however, clearly hinged on his compliance with a demand that he distance himself from Florida Atlantic in his controversial blog on politics and the media, Memory Hole, according to recent correspondence between Mr. Tracy and administrators obtained by The Chronicle.

In the letter of reprimand, sent to Mr. Tracy on March 28, Heather Coltman, interim dean of the university's College of Arts and Letters, accused the professor of repeatedly failing to abide by a January agreement not to mention Florida Atlantic or his affiliation with it on his blog. She cited several of his blog entries from February in which he posted letters from his supporters that were addressed to Florida Atlantic or its administrators.

"You must stop dragging FAU into your personal endeavors," Ms. Coltman's letter of reprimand said. "Your actions continue to adversely affect the legitimate interests of the university and constitute misconduct."

The letter went on to warn Mr. Tracy: "If you continue to fail to meet your professional obligations and respond to directives from your supervisor, you will face additional disciplinary action."

Mr. Tracy has filed a grievance with his union, the United Faculty of Florida, challenging the disciplinary action as an infringement of his free-speech rights. The grievance argues that the university had no right to discipline him for his blog postings because the blog is unrelated to his faculty position, he works on the blog in his spare time, and the blog does not state the views of Florida Atlantic and says so in a disclaimer.

"I think that they are concerned with the content of what I am saying, and they are looking for an excuse to reprimand me," Mr. Tracy said in an interview.

Chris Robé, an associate professor of film and media at Florida Atlantic and the president of the Florida Atlantic chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, said he sees the grievance as an "easy" win against the administration. "The burden is on them to show where he has violated the collective-bargaining agreement," he said. "They offer no evidence of it."

"The administration," Mr. Robé added, "has no right to regulate faculty in their spare time in terms of what they can or cannot say."

Dispute Over Disclaimer

Florida Atlantic's administration issued a statement on Thursday that said its letters to Mr. Tracy show he has not been disciplined for his personal activities or publications, but for his failure to comply with a contract provision requiring him to issue a clear disclaimer that his personal views are not those of the university.

The public controversy surrounding Mr. Tracy is one of several in recent months that have left faculty members at Florida Atlantic worried about academic freedom and the reputation of their institution. Among the others, the university recently apologized for an instructor's decision to ask students to step on a piece of paper with "Jesus" written on it as part of a classroom exercise. Administrators placed that instructor on leave—largely for his own protection, university officials said.

Florida Atlantic also felt compelled to scrap an agreement to name the university's football stadium for a private prison operator that had pledged a $6-million donation to the institution but has been accused of human-rights violations.

Mr. Tracy wrote the first of several highly controversial blog posts about Sandy Hook 10 days after the mass shooting, in which Adam Lanza killed his mother at their home and then fatally shot 20 children and six adult employees at the school before committing suicide. In the post, dated December 24, Mr. Tracy wrote, "While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place—at least in the way law-enforcement authorities and the nation's news media have described."

In that post and others that followed, he questioned much of what was reported to have happened at the school. He also suggested that the news media were complicit in distorting events at Newtown as a means of fostering new efforts to regulate guns.

Two weeks later, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published the first of several accounts of Mr. Tracy's blog that would bring him widespread attention. In the ensuing uproar, Mary Jane Saunders, president of Florida Atlantic, issued a written statement in which she said Mr. Tracy's opinions "are not shared by Florida Atlantic University." She said she was "personally saddened by any media stories that added to the pain felt by the victims' families."

 A Flood of E-Mails

The pressure that the furor over Mr. Tracy was bringing to bear on Florida Atlantic's administration is evident in a January 28 memorandum from Ms. Coltman, the interim dean, to Mr. Tracy summarizing what transpired in a meeting between the professor and administrators 10 days earlier. The letter said Diane Alperin, associate provost for academic personnel and programs, "had shared the broad brush of the impact that your articles have had on the university; from admissions to development, from students to faculty, from the Board of Trustees to the Legislature, and across the administrative offices of the university."

The letter said those at the meeting discussed how a flood of e-mails and media attention had disrupted the university's operations. "We let you know," the letter said, "of the large number of parents who had communicated with the Office of Admissions requesting that their child's application be withdrawn; the student whose parent requested she be withdrawn from your class; the donor who withdrew his support to the department of history; and the faculty who have expressed concern about the safety of students."

Along with asking Mr. Tracy to post on his blog disclaimers saying explicitly there is no affiliation between the blog and Florida Atlantic, administrators instructed him at the early January meeting to file a report disclosing his outside employment and activities, and get it approved by Noemi Marin, director of the university's School of Communication and Multimedia Studies. Mr. Tracy subsequently added to his blog disclaimers of its university affiliation, but he refused to comply fully with the directive about his disclosure form, arguing that his contact requires only that he report outside employment, not that he get it approved.

Mr. Tracy argued in an interview that the university's actions appear driven partly by its concern with media references to him as a Florida Atlantic professor in coverage of his remarks about Sandy Hook.

"I don't really have any control over a media outlet that contacts me and wants to ask about my blog," he said. "I can't say to them, 'Refer to me as James F. Tracy, private citizen.'"

He said his right to comment, as a scholar, on Sandy Hook or other events "is something the university should be prepared to stand up for."

"If we don't ask these questions," he said, "who is going to?"