Was he a rule breaker who deserved to lose his job or did Florida Atlantic University fire a controversial professor because he spoke out about his views?
Tracy says he was fired in January 2016 in retaliation for his constitutionally protected free speech because he questioned whether the school shootings at Sandy Hook and other mass casualties really happened.
FAU says he was terminated for “insubordination” because he repeatedly refused to comply with job requirements, by not disclosing work and other activities he performed outside of his role at the university.
In opening statements Thursday in the civil trial, Tracy’s attorney Matthew Benzion told jurors that FAU officials found a way to discipline and fire Tracy for other reasons in retaliation for his “controversial” speech.
“FAU is a place with two sets of rules - one set of rules for people whose speech they agree with and another set of rules for people whose speech they don’t agree with.”
G. Joseph Curley, the attorney for FAU, told the jury that the university respected Tracy’s right to free speech, even when he made “distasteful” comments.
Tracy was a problem employee who believed the rules didn’t apply to him, Curley said.
FAU officials repeatedly warned him about his refusal to disclose outside work he performed and outside money he received, the attorney said. Tracy also deliberately concealed potential conflicts of interest.
“What they [FAU] wouldn’t let him do was blatantly violate the rules,” Curley said.
Tracy, now 52, was a communications professor who taught classes that included “Culture of Conspiracy.” He brought unwelcome attention to the university when he spoke and wrote about several high-profile conspiracy theories on his personal blog in 2012.
Tracy, the first witness to testify in the case, told jurors this morning that he considered his Memory Hole blog a personal endeavor that was “a recess” from his scholarly and academic work.
The father of four young children said he decided to blog about Sandy Hook in December 2012 because several of his family members were “traumatically” affected by coverage of the event. He said he read and viewed mainstream media reports and analysis and began to question official accounts of the incident.
“There were a number of anomalies and problems regarding missing information,” Tracy testified. He said he believed that normal emergency protocols were abandoned and he wondered why the victims’ parents had not sued Connecticut state government.
He said he believed FAU officials began scrutinizing him and seeking to discipline him after the Sun Sentinel reported on his blog posts in January 2013 and it became an “international” controversy.” He was eventually fired in January 2016.
Tracy also publicly questioned whether the federal government engaged in a conspiracy in connection with those mass casualty events to promote gun control.
And he engaged in a public feud with Lenny and Veronique Pozner, whose 6-year-old son, Noah, was murdered at Sandy Hook. The professor accused them of “cashing in” on Sandy Hook and fabricating their son’s death certification, after they wrote an opinion piece in the Sun Sentinel accusing him of harassment in 2015.
During hours of testimony on Thursday, Tracy repeatedly said he had been confused by what he thought were “ambiguous” policies and disclosure forms.
He was composed for all but a few moments.
Tracy paused dramatically and sobbed for a few moments as he read aloud an email that he wrote in November 2015 asking FAU officials to withdraw a disciplinary finding that had been filed against him.
Attorneys for FAU will get to cross-examine Tracy on Friday.
Eight jurors, four women and four men, were selected earlier this week. The trial in federal court in West Palm Beach is expected to take about two weeks.
U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg repeatedly warned potential jurors that they will hear testimony about what Tracy said and wrote – which they may not endorse.
“However, this is not a case about whether you agree with [his] beliefs or whether you agree with [his] speech … you will not decide whether plaintiff's beliefs are correct. What you must do, however, is judge this case impartially regardless of whether you agree with plaintiff's personal views,” she told them several times during jury selection.
All of the jurors who were selected assured both sides they can be fair and impartial and decide the case on the evidence and facts.
Several people who were not selected, told the judge in court that they were disturbed by some of what Tracy said.
One woman, who said her young daughter had died in circumstances she did not reveal, cried in the courtroom and said she would find it “very difficult” to hear testimony in the case. She said it would be upsetting to listen to someone claim that the Sandy Hook shootings did not happen because she personally knows the pain that grieving parents endure.
Another man in the potential jury pool told the judge he was “rolling his eyes” when he read prior coverage of the case.