In January, Florida journalists noticed that a professor at Florida Atlantic University had been blogging about his doubts that a massacre really took place at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December. The professor, James Tracy, teaches communication and writes, among other things, about his view that mainstream media is inaccurate or deceptive in many ways. He has taught about conspiracies.
Of Newtown, he wrote on his blog: “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.” Professor Tracy speculated that the Obama administration was using Sandy Hook to advance a gun-control agenda.
The university responded at the time (in public at least) the way many institutions do when their faculty members say things that are controversial. A spokeswoman told local reporters that “James Tracy does not speak for the university. The website on which his post appeared is not affiliated with FAU in any way.”
What wasn’t clear at the time is that the university was meeting with Professor Tracy, complaining that he had not done enough - in the opinion of FAU officials - to distance his views from the institution that employs him.
Florida Atlantic is already facing criticism from many professors who say that the university failed to defend a faculty member who was attacked by politicians and others for a classroom exercise in which he asked students to write the name “Jesus” on a piece of paper and to step on it. The idea behind the exercise is that students will hesitate, leading to a discussion of the power of symbols. But the university - when one student complained about the lesson, and quickly attracted widespread press and political attention - apologised, and said it would bar the activity from ever being used again.
At about the same time the university was facing criticism over that course, it was issuing a reprimand to Professor Tracy.
Heather Coltman, interim dean of arts and sciences, wrote that she was reprimanding Professor Tracy for failing to take sufficient steps to disassociate his blog from the university.
In the “About” section of his blog, Professor Tracy notes that he teaches at Florida Atlantic. But he also states, in bold: “All items published herein represent the views of James Tracy and are not representative of or condoned by Florida Atlantic University or the State University System of Florida. James Tracy is not responsible for and does not necessarily agree with ideas or observations presented in the comments posted on memoryholeblog.com.”
Professor Coltman wrote that this disclaimer was “ineffective” as people - including reporters - continued to associate him with the university. Further, she criticised him for mentioning the university in blog posts (that criticised the university). And she noted that these posts did not have the disclaimer attached to them.
“You may, of course, blog in your personal time. You must stop dragging FAU into your personal endeavours. Your actions continue to adversely affect the legitimate interests of the university and constitute misconduct. This letter of reprimand is disciplinary action subject to Article 20, Grievance Procedure. If you continue to fail to meet your professional obligations and respond to directives from your supervisor, you will face additional disciplinary action,” she wrote.
The university released the letter as a public document under Florida’s open records act. But a university spokeswoman denied that the letter - even though it explicitly reprimanded Professor Tracy and said he could “face additional disciplinary action” - constituted a punishment. “These letters reflect that no employee has been disciplined for his/her personal activities or publications,” she said.
Professor Tracy has continued to express his views on free speech - including the reprimand he received. On a recent blog post, he reflected on a sculpture on the campus that is devoted to the First Amendment, and wrote that the university had failed to protect the professor in the Jesus controversy or another professor he didn’t name (or need to) - whom he wrote the university was trying to intimidate over his writing on Newtown.
Wrote Professor Tracy: “The First Amendment sculpture’s spirit and presence at FAU is contradicted by the university administration’s recent attempts to coerce faculty and students from publicly addressing controversial subject matter of tremendous public interest and concern.”