Last year, during his podcast The Real Deal, James Fetzer told listeners he was going to “lay out some evidence that makes it obvious” that the 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school was actually a “political operation” pulled off to benefit the Democratic Party.
“Anyone who was paying attention would have noticed that they had an Instagram with a so-called gunman wearing a ‘Make America [Great] Again’ [hat]. I mean, what was that supposed to tell us?That this is what you can expect from Trump supporters? I mean, it’s embarrassingly bad.”
It was a jarring conclusion. But if you were familiar with his work, you’d know he was just getting warmed up.
Fetzer is a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota-Duluth who now lives in Wisconsin. Most of his scores on RateMyProfessor.com were good, but a few mentioned he had a tendency to “bring his conspiracies into discussion an awful lot.”
“Really tough to sit through his political theory rants,” one student said.
Fetzer’s conspiracy du jour was the JFK assassination, which he called a government hit. He went on to claim that the 2002 plane crash that killed U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone was actually murder, and that 9/11 was an inside job.
“I have been astonished at the public vilification that has been directed at members of this society for pursuing the truth about 9/11,” he wrote in the preface of his 2007 book, The 9/11 Conspiracy: The Scamming of America, claiming “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.”
In 2014, he contributed to a book called Breaking the Spell , a work of Holocaust denial, which Goodreads reviewers called either a “brilliant and thorough explanation of the Holohoax,” or a “literary feat in the art of bullshitting.”
The next year, he co-wrote another book, provocatively titled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook. He claimed the 2012 elementary school shooting – resulting in the deaths of 28 people – never happened. Instead, it was elaborately staged by the federal government so the Obama administration could argue for tighter gun restrictions. Fetzer claims the book has been downloaded more than 1 million times, and his attorney says about 3,000 hard copies were sold.
A lot of readers willingly swallowed the narrative, then directed their anger squarely at Leonard Pozner, a Connecticut dad who lost his 6-year-old son Noah in the massacre. Fetzer claimed Noah’s death certificate was fake, and that Pozner may not even be his father. Ever since then, Pozner has been dealing with constant harassment from Sandy Hook deniers.
Facing death threats from strangers—and determined not to let his son be erased from history—Pozner fought back. He founded the nonprofit HONR Network, which works to counter online hoaxes. He and other Sandy Hook parents got together and filed suit against right-wing pundit and Infowars host Alex Jones, who has also made hay of denying the deaths of their children.
Then he hit Fetzer and his co-author with a defamation lawsuit. His attorney, Genevieve Zimmerman of Minnesota’s Meshbesher and Spence law firm, called the book and its companion blog post “a virus” and “alt-right opium.” On Wednesday, a court ruled that Fetzer must pay Pozner $450,000 in damages.
Co-author Mike Palacek apologized for “any resulting distress” he may have caused, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Fetzer, however, called it “absurd” and swore to appeal.
In a statement sent to City Pages, he called the outcome “a significant defeat for collaborative research by citizen journalists,” who have been trying to offset “the pervasive influence of ‘fake news’” about not only Sandy Hook, but “JFK, 9/11, the Boston bombing, and (even) the moon landing.”
“Most Americans,” he said, were not “in the position to conduct research and sort out truth from fiction.”
Fetzer, after all, didn’t see Pozner bury his child—a boy who had been reportedly funny and imaginative, a twin to one of his surviving daughters. He didn’t see the heartbroken father kiss Noah’s forehead for the last time. But that doesn’t matter. Pozner has never been out to change Fetzer’s mind. He told the AP in June that if Fetzer wants to believe his young son was never murdered—or, indeed, never existed—he has a right to be wrong.
“But he doesn’t have a right to broadcast those beliefs if they defame or harass me,” he said. “He doesn’t have the right to use my baby’s image or our name as a marketing ploy to raise donations or sell his products. He doesn’t have the right to convince others to hunt my family.”