Sun Sentinel
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Jurors took just three hours on Monday to rule against a controversial blogger who claimed he was fired from a tenured professorship at Florida Atlantic University in retaliation for his conspiracy theorist blogging about the Sandy Hook massacre.

James Tracy alleged that FAU violated his First Amendment rights to free speech. He wanted to be reinstated to his former position, with back pay and an unspecified amount of damages.

FAU officials say they never censored Tracy or prevented him from expressing his opinions. They say he was fired after repeatedly and intentionally refusing to file mandatory disclosure forms that require all professors to reveal outside work activities that could affect their work or the university.

The only question the jury had to answer: Was Tracy's blogging a "motivating factor" in FAU's decision to fire him? Tracy would have won if he had proven his case by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it was more likely true than not true. The eight jurors responded with a unanimous "no."

Tracy declined to comment after the verdict, but one of his attorneys called reporters "presstitutes" and yelled "fake news" at them as he left the courthouse. Tracy's team of attorneys said they plan to appeal the judge's pretrial rulings.

The trial, in federal court in West Palm Beach, began Nov. 29 and featured testimony from Tracy and several FAU officials.

Tracy, 52, of Boca Raton, was a communications professor for FAU from 2002 until January 2016. He received tenure in 2008.

The controversy began in late 2012 after Tracy posted conspiracy theories on his Memory Hole blog about whether the mass shooting — which killed 20 children and six adults — had really happened. Tracy hinted at a government conspiracy and later contributed a chapter and timeline to the book "Nobody Died at Sandy Hook: It Was a FEMA Drill to Promote Gun Control."

The Sun Sentinel reported on Tracy's blogging in January 2013 and the story was picked up by national and international media.

The publicity led to widespread criticism and distaste regarding Tracy's methods and words, which included writing that the families of the victims — the parents of murdered elementary schoolchildren — were "playing a role."

In the following years, Tracy also engaged in a feud with the parents of 6-year-old Noah Pozner, who died in the Newtown, Conn. shootings.

Tracy's team of attorneys told the jury that Tracy was a victim of retaliation because FAU officials "didn't like what he was saying."

"They thought he was a nut job," attorney Matthew Benzion said in his closing argument.

"They didn't like his speech and they wanted him gone," Benzion said. Tracy's team argued FAU violated his free speech rights and then came up with a pretext to get rid of him and make it look legitimate.

Joseph Curley, one of the attorneys on FAU's team, told the jury that Tracy's firing was not motivated by his blogging and said he was fired for repeatedly breaking the rules about disclosing outside activities and earnings and refusing to follow orders from his bosses. Tracy continued his controversial blog and other activities for three years before FAU fired him.

"He doesn't play by the rules," Curley said. And that doesn't work at a large institution like FAU, where officials rely on their 3,300 employees to be upfront and abide by the honor system, he said.

Tracy used his position as an FAU professor for "self-promotion" and to bolster his blog's reputation, Curley said.

Curley listed several examples of Tracy's failure to follow the rules and comply with reasonable requests from his employers.

"The school wasn't his priority. The school was a platform for him — that's not what it's supposed to be about," Curley said.