Florida Atlantic University is moving to terminate Communications Professor James Tracy, a critic of the media and a frequent conspiracy theorist. Predictable, Professor Tracy and his supporters have suggested his comments are protected by academic freedom and freedom of speech. In today’s post, I will explain why Tracy’s comments are not protected by tenure and academic freedom as well as why I would vote to terminate him if I was on his faculty grievance committee.
Both proponents and critics like to suggest that academic freedom provides a blank check for faculty to say or do anything they want without repercussion.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
For starters, academic freedom doesn’t cover cray-cray.
Academic freedom exists to protect faculty to pursue truth and teach students without the fear of punishment or retribution.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) created the foundational statement on academic freedom and tenure.
In it, the AAUP states that academic freedom “carries with it duties correlative with rights.”
Many academic groups acknowledge that membership in the academic profession requires special responsibility that a general member of society does not need to conform.
The statement continues: “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.”
And this is where Professor Tracy failed his institution and discipline.
“As scholars and educational officers, [faculty] should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances” the AAUP goes on to say, “Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”
To me, there are two tests to consider related to Professor Tracy’s blog, public comments, and actions related to his discussion of Sandy Hook and other so-called conspiracies.
First, is Tracy speaking as a citizen or a member of the academic profession?
I believe one must consider Tracy’s comments (even though outside of the university) as related to his academic profession. He is a professor of communications and teaches a course on conspiracy.
This puts his comments squarely within his teaching and research meaning he must fulfill the responsibilities of appropriate restraint, respect others’ opinions, and indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
FAU previously reprimanded Tracy for failing to clearly show that he was not speaking for the institution. While his blog has a general disclaimer, I would have recommend that he include a disclaimer with each post.
However, this is not where Tracy failed most spectacularly.
In fact, Tracy’s failure to use restraint makes Steve Harvey messing up the Miss Universe announcement look like a slight clerical error.
A quick review of Tracy’s blog shows that he fails to back up his claims with research, makes accusations with little or no evidence, and generally fails to follow accepted research norms and ethics.
He even went so far as to send a certified letter to the parents of a Sandy Hook victim asking them to prove their son was ever alive.
If there is a more egregious way to not show restraint, I don’t know what it would be.
Professor Tracy can’t claim that his comments about media and conspiracy are covered as a citizen because they directly relate to his academic experience and expertise. He also can’t claim to have showed restraint or respect the opinions of others.
As a result, his comments are not protected by academic freedom or tenure.
He is a disgrace to the academic community and insults the ideals of academic freedom by claiming they protect his comments.
If he used data and research to back up his claims, showed appropriate restraint, and drew clear distinctions between his comments and those of the university, this post would be about why FAU needs to protect Tracy.
But he didn’t do those things and does not deserve the support of his institution or faculty colleagues.
For these reasons, if I was on the faculty committee reviewing Professor Tracy’s case, I would vote to terminate him effective immediately.