Saturday, January 09, 2016

Disgusting Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theorists Have Academic Freedom Too

Time for an unpopular opinion: I lean towards the position that Florida Atlantic University violated academic freedom requirements when it fired James Tracy, a tenured communications professor. Tracy became notorious for his wild-eyed conspiratorial beliefs about the Sandy Hook massacre -- namely, that it didn't happen at that at least one of the family's involved actually faked having a child for money. He has pursued this line of inquiry quite vocally, including sending demands to the grieving family demanding that they "prove" their child is real. Bonus irony points: Tracy's area of study is conspiracy theories.

FAU claims to be firing Tracy not for his views on Sandy Hook, but because he failed to file certain disclosures regarding out-of-classroom activities. Like Paul Campos and Ken White, I smell a pretextual rat. It is almost impossible to imagine this misbehavior, if it would be punished at all, would be grounds for dismissal were it not for Tracy's public airing of his repulsive views.

In the Steven Salaita case, I took the firm position that
Yes, I think Salaita made anti-Semitic tweets, yes, I think his academic freedom was violated, no, clause "a" and clause "b" should not have anything to do with one another. Academic freedom includes the right to make anti-Semitic (or racist, or sexist, or whatever) statements; Salaita should not have been effectively stripped of his position for doing so; and he was entitled to (and I'm glad he received) a significant cash payout given that he detrimentally relied on Illinois' failure to adhere to basic academic freedom standards.
One could say similar things about Tracy. His outlook regarding Sandy Hook is truly appalling, but he nonetheless retains the academic freedom to promote said views, and clause one and two of this sentence should bear no relationship with one another. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the response to this case will not parallel the Salaita case, because it was evident that the passion with which Salaita was defended was entirely unrelated to the academic freedom issues in play, and instead stemmed from the belief that Salaita's beliefs were not just "protected by academic freedom" but actually salutary on their merits (lest one think that Tracy is the exception and Salaita is the rule in terms of the ferocity of the academic response, witness the comparatively muted response to LSU's firing of Teresa Buchanan, a case where the challenged conduct seems almost ludicrously trivial).

Even though academic freedom by its nature should not depend on whether one agrees with the behavior of Tracy, Salaita, or Buchanan, it is evident that the manner in which these debates play is inextricably linked to such substantive appraisals. This is not to say that people don't "really" believe in academic freedom and were simply cynically deploying it in the Salaita case. It is not agreement with the principle, but the ferocity with which it is dependent, that varies based on how one feels about the substance. Nobody will call for boycotts of FAU or LSU, and so it is fair to say that the boycott effort against UIUC was not motivated by "academic freedom" but by a desire to defend Salaita on the substance.


Binyamin Arazi said...

I have to disagree with you on Salaita. Someone like that should NOT be teaching kids. Antisemitism is enough of a problem for us as it is, so giving him the boot was the right way to go.

Unknown said...

Nit Pic: Tracy did NOT become notorious because of his beliefs but because of his actions - if he hadn't harassed that family he'd still have his job.

David Schraub said...

BA: I actually taught at Illinois briefly (a few years before l'affair Salaita), and one of my colleagues made Steven Salaita look like Golda Meir. It wasn't thrilling, but after the third or fourth blast email regaling the entire faculty about the latest developments in the Zionist-Rockefeller-Neocon-Bush-Cheney-Evangelical-Fascist conspiracy of world domination, I came to realize that a university can survive a few crackpots. Academic freedom includes the academic freedom to be anti-Semitic (or racist, or sexist, or whatever). The sin isn't in "tolerating" the speech, the sin is in thinking the speech is affirmatively good, and that is what was worrisome about the reaction to the Salaita case.

As for Tracy, again he seems like a despicable being. That said, I'm doubtful that what he's done could rise to the legal level of harassment. Indeed, it is arguable that his "demand of proof" is, in its twisted demented way, simply a form of research. If it could be found that Tracy had engaged in criminal harassment, then I think the academic freedom issue can be trumped -- but it's notable that FAU is not relying on that argument. This makes me think that "harassment" is being used more in a rhetorical sense.

Jud Mathews said...

I don't have well-developed views on how far academic freedom properly extends. Certainly it would simplify line-drawing matters to take an absolutist view that academic freedom should properly extend to cover all expression, full stop. Is this your view? If this isn't your view, how do you think the line should be drawn?

David Schraub said...

I do tend to take a pretty absolutist view (primarily because I don't have a strong sense of where else one can draw the line). There are a handful of universities with bona fide Holocaust deniers on the payroll, and while at one level that's deeply unnerving, on another level we're surviving.