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University’s firing of Sandy Hook massacre denier upheld

Sandy Hook

A federal appeals court on Monday affirmed a jury verdict that upheld the dismissal of a Florida college teacher who had denied the 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut occurred, holding that he had been insubordinate.

James Tracy held a tenured position at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Communication and Multimedia Studies in Boca Raton when he denied the Sandy Hook massacre in a personal blog, according to Monday’s ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in James Tracy v. Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees et al.

The university did not ask Mr. Tracy, whose denial of the shooting deaths attracted national news media attention, to stop blogging but requested he post a disclaimer on his blog and report his outside activities as required under the faculty collective bargaining agreement, according to the ruling.

As part of a settlement agreement Mr. Tracy did post a disclaimer but refused to report his blog, arguing it did not qualify as “reportable outside activity,” the ruling said.

The university terminated Mr. Tracy after he refused multiple requests to submit outside activity reports and ignored warnings that his recalcitrance could result in termination, the ruling said.

Mr. Tracy sued the university on counts including that its policy was unconstitutionally vague, that his termination breached the collective bringing agreement and that the university had used his insubordination as a pretext for First Amendment retaliation.

The court granted summary judgment dismissing his constitutional and breach-of-contract claims but denied summary judgment as to his First Amendment retaliation claim. A jury in West Palm Beach, Florida, ruled in the university’s favor after a nine-day trial on that count.

Mr. Tracy petitioned the appeals court to reverse the district court’s summary judgment rulings and overturn the jury verdict.

A three-judge appeals court panel affirmed all three rulings. On the retaliation claim, the panel said, “To establish that he was discharged in retaliation for protected speech, Plaintiff had to prove, among other things, that his speech played a ‘substantial part’ in the University’s decision to terminate him,” the ruling said.

“The jury found that Plaintiff had failed to do so, as it found that Plaintiff’s blog speech was not a motivating factor in the University decisions. We conclude that there was more than sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict.”

It said university officials testified that they had terminated him for insubordination, that they would not have dismissed him if he had submitted the outside activity reports, and that they had never asked him to stop writing his blog.

There “is little doubt that Plaintiff was insubordinate,” the appeals panel said in affirming the lower court rulings in the case.

The university said in a statement that it “appreciates the 11th Circuit’s thoughtful and well-written opinion affirming the decisions of the trial court and the jury’s unanimous verdict in favor of the university. The Court’s thorough review of the issues raised in this case upholds the university’s administrative and decision-making processes, which embody the values of professional responsibility, academic freedom, and sound governance.” It said also the university looks forward “to putting this matter behind us.”

Mr. Tracy’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.