James Tracy, the former professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University who made headlines for both denying that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre happened and for espousing other conspiracy theories related to mass shootings, is suing the institution for allegedly violating his free speech and other rights. While the development is relatively unsurprising, given the tumult surrounding his termination, the suit also names Florida Atlantic’s faculty union leaders as co-defendants, alleging they conspired with the university to boot Tracy.
According to the suit, filed this week in federal court, union officials successfully intervened on Tracy’s behalf in 2013, when his blog posts alleging that the Newtown, Conn., shootings were really an elaborate federal ploy for more gun control first gained attention. But in 2015, it says, when Tracy faced disciplinary action for not filling out required paperwork detailing his extracurricular activities, the union failed to help him.
Tracy was terminated in January. While he alleges he was fired for his controversial views in violation of the First Amendment and university policies ensuring academic freedom, Florida Atlantic has pointed to the paperwork issue as the official reason.
The suit alleges that university administrators first began “strategizing” about ways to terminate Tracy just weeks after he began blogging about Sandy Hook, in January 2013. At a meeting that month, according to the suit, several administrators told Tracy not to make any further public statements about Sandy Hook and requested that he fill out an outside activities form used to flag potential conflicts of interest for his personal blogging. But union representatives, who attended the meeting with Tracy, allegedly told him that his online speech was protected by the First Amendment and uncompensated by the university, and therefore not eligible for inclusion in the form.
Heather Coltman, dean of the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, allegedly directed Tracy to complete the form again that same month, but he was consistently advised by the union not to complete it, the suit says. Several months later, Tracy received an official notice of discipline from Coltman. She did not mention the outside activity form but allegedly asked that he “stop dragging [the university] into your personal endeavors.”
The union continued to defend Tracy, eventually filing a grievance on his behalf, according to the suit. The university allegedly rejected the grievance but later made an agreement with Tracy that if he removed all references to the university on his blog, it would retract the notice of discipline from his file.
In fall 2015, Florida Atlantic changed its policies to require all professors to agree to the following: “I am required to report any outside activity (compensated or uncompensated) and any financial interest in Florida Atlantic University’s report of Outside Employment or Professional Activities.”
Confused about the new policy, and on parental leave at the time, Tracy emailed union representatives and the university, explaining that he felt forced to sign something he didn’t understand, according to the suit. Robert Zoeller, president of the National Education Association-affiliated campus faculty union and a professor of exercise science, responded via email that the matter was to be addressed in collective bargaining, the suit says. He allegedly repeatedly advised Tracy to affirm the newly required statement for now, and fight it later.
Tracy submitted his annual report but did not sign off on the new agreement, according to the suit. He received another letter of discipline from his dean.
According to the complaint, Tracy asked Zoeller to file a grievance about the disciplinary notice, but he denied the request, saying that he and other union officials met to discuss Tracy’s case and decided that it wasn't eligible for a grievance.
Threatened with termination, Tracy eventually signed the form under duress, in December, according to the suit. A day later, the university issued a notice of intent to terminate, citing his failure to complete the outside activities form in a timely manner.
When Tracy contacted the union, Zoeller allegedly criticized him for not turning in his paperwork earlier, and then pressured him to resign to avoid termination. Michael Moats, a regional union official who is also mentioned by name as a co-defendant, allegedly did the same.
According to the suit, the union did not respond to the university’s notice within the 10 days afforded by contract. The suit says that inaction allowed the university to finally get rid of Tracy.
“Both [Florida Atlantic] 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,” Louis Leo IV, Tracy’s attorney, said in a statement. “Tenure, free speech, due process and academic freedom are under attack. Without judicial intervention, employees and faculty at Florida Atlantic and other universities around the U.S. will continue to be censored, deterred or chilled from sharing unpopular information or opinions for fear that they will be disciplined on a pretext.”
Leo declined to answer additional questions about the union’s involvement.
Zoeller, the union president, declined comment. Moats, a regional service director with the United Faculty of Florida, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Joshua Glanzer, a spokesman for Florida Atlantic, said the university doesn’t comment on pending litigation, and that it’s “too early to estimate how much James Tracy will cost the taxpayer for [the institution] to defend any lawsuit.”
Tracy is seeking reinstatement and monetary relief, including lost wages and for damage to his reputation.
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