On December 11, 2017 the jury in the TracyvFAU 10-day trial returned a verdict in favor of defendant Florida Atlantic University. The federal case involved the work of over 12 attorneys and close to 500 separate legal briefs. Yet the decision’s implications for the First Amendment and free speech can be summarized in five minutes.
Trial attorney Matthew Benzion discusses Florida Atlantic University’s unlawful use of an “Outside Employment/Activities Policy” to fire Professor James Tracy and restrict faculty and staff speech before-the-fact–a policy that is now effectively part of federal law and can be arbitrarily used to police and reprimand any public employee’s personal activities and online speech.
Miami, Florida – Attorneys for James Tracy filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit of the summary judgment rulings granted by the District Court in favor of Florida Atlantic University (“FAU”) and various public university officials. Tracy’s lawyers also argue that the jury verdict should be reversed and the Court should grant judgment in Tracy’s favor as a matter of law.
An excerpt from #TracyvFAU appeal brief, filed yesterday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
This is what an unconstitutional #PriorRestraint at a public university looks like.
James Tracy was a distinguished tenured faculty member in FAU’s School of Communications who taught journalism history, communication theory, and courses on the media’s coverage of conspiracy theories. Tracy received awards for his work, regularly earned excellent reviews, and was a former president of the FAU faculty union.
Despite Tracy’s outstanding academic record, FAU fired Tracy in retaliation for controversial posts he made on his personal blog questioning the legitimacy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. In January 2016, FAU terminated Tracy’s tenured professorship, falsely claiming he had been “insubordinate” for failing to disclose his blogging activity under its conflict of interest outside activity Policy.
On appeal, it is argued that summary judgment should have been granted in Tracy’s favor by the District Court, since the Policy FAU used to terminate his professorship is unconstitutionally vague “because blogging is not mentioned as a potential conflict of interest, key terms used within the Policy are undefined, and FAU does not have a policy on blogging.
Over twenty professors have blogs or other online speech activities, and Tracy is the only one to have ever been required to report, much less disciplined, for failing to report under the Policy. This is all the more compelling given that Tracy’s blog was publically available and well known to FAU, and his speech was widely reported and highly controversial.”
The record demonstrates FAU’s Policy violates the First Amendment “because it fails to provide employees with a reasonable opportunity to understand what blogging it prohibits and authorizes” and the Policy “did not provide sufficient guidance as to what blogging had to be reported, it could not be enforced without reference to the content of an employee’s speech, thereby facilitating viewpoint discrimination targeting disfavored speech. Indeed, FAU found Tracy’s posting violated the Policy despite having no policy at all on blogging while it fully protected expression that it favored.”
Additionally, Tracy’s lawyers argue that the jury verdict (that Tracy’s speech was not a motivating factor in his termination) is contrary to overwhelming evidence, and no reasonable jury could have determined that Tracy’s speech was not a motivating factor in his termination because:
Tracy’s blogging was obviously not a conflict of interest;
FAU’s reason for firing Tracy was legally insufficient;
FAU’s history of disciplining and monitoring Tracy’s blog;
FAU’s selective enforcement of a vague Policy;
Evidence of complaints and negative publicity;
FAU’s termination letter citing the blog; and
FAU emails celebrating Tracy’s termination.
Moreover, the District Court wrongfully excluded evidence that directly impacted Tracy’s ability to enforce his rights at trial.
What Would Fair and Balanced Journalism Have Looked Like?
By James F. Tracy
The Palm Beach Post and South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s overall coverage of the December 2017 TracyvFAU trial looks as if it could have been written by the Defendant University’s “Department of Media Relations.” Post and Sun-Sentinel managements recognize how FAU’s multitude of advertising dollars is a key support in their erroneous and uncritical reportage of complex public events and broader operations. With the trial each outlet skewed its reportage and editorial commentary to heavily favor the school, thereby securing for their client a positive verdict in South Florida’s court of public opinion.
One need look no further than the Post and Sun-Sentinel‘s article titles to gather an overview of the TracyvFAU’s editorial thrust:
In fact, the papers pulled their reporters from the courtroom entirely when crucial testimony was given by Professor Tracy’s colleagues and fellow union officers giving the lie to the central argument of FAU’s million-dollar defense—that Tracy consciously violated a school policy rigorously adhered to by all other faculty and employees.