An aide to a Florida state lawmaker has been fired after claiming teens who survived last week’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were “actors.”
Benjamin Kelly, who served as district secretary for Republican Rep. Shawn Harrison, said in an email Tuesday to a Tampa Bay Times reporter that two students pictured in a news interview were actually “actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.”
The students, Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, have spoken out after 17 members of their school community, including classmates, teachers and a football coach, were shot and killed as Nikolas Cruz, 19, allegedly opened fire in the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Alex Leary, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Times who received Kelly’s unsolicited email, said that when he responded asking for information to back the claim, Kelly emailed him a link to a YouTube conspiracy video.
As the contents of Kelly’s email were shared on social media, Rep. Harrison slammed his aide’s comments as “insensitive and inappropriate.”
“I do not share his opinion and he did so without my knowledge,” Harrison said.
He noted that Kelly had been placed on leave while his office determined the appropriate course of action.
Less than an hour later, Harrison, who was one of the 71 elected officials who voted against bringing a bill that would ban assault weapons to the floor for conversation, said in another statement that Kelly had been fired.
“Tonight Mr. Kelly was terminated from his position as my district secretary,” Harrison tweeted. “I am appalled at and strongly denounce his comments about the Parkland students. I am again sorry for any pain this has caused the grieving families of this tragedy.”
Kelly also responded to his firing, but did not acknowledge his claim about the students was in fact a conspiracy theory and not true.
“I’ve been terminated from the State House,” he wrote. “I made a mistake whereas I tried to inform a reporter of information relating to his story regarding a school shooting. This was not my responsibility. I meant no disrespect to the students or parents of Parkland.”
In a later Tweet from his account, which by Wednesday appeared to no longer exist, Kelly quoted the Bible: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Kelly’s claim was based in part on incorrect information published by the pro-Trump website The Gateway Pundit, which has previously published factually incorrect assertions.
In October 2017, the site identified an innocent person as the shooter behind the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas and in December 2017, published false claims that Democratic activists were committing voter fraud in the Alabama Senate special election.
The site claimed Hogg, a 17-year-old student at Stoneman Douglas, who has said he wants to be a journalist, was “coached on anti-Trump lines” by his father, a retired FBI agent.
“EXPOSED: School Shooting Survivor Turned Activist David Hogg’s Father in FBI, Appears To Have Been Coached On Anti-Trump Lines,” read a headline on Gateway Pundit.
Donald J. Trump Jr. “liked” a link to that post on Twitter.
Lucian Wintrich, the White House correspondent for The Gateway Pundit, who suggested Hogg had suspect motives for calling for gun control after the shooting, stood by his report and defended his stance in an interview with The Wrap.
“[David Hogg’s] immediate defense of the FBI and condemnation of President Trump did not simply seem like the passion of a teenager in shock — it seemed coordinated and rehearsed,” Wintrich told The Wrap. “There is no credibility there and it’s disgusting to watch.”
Hogg called the conspiracy theories about himself and his fellow classmates “immature, rude and inhuman.”
“I just think it’s a testament to the sick immaturity and broken state of our government when these people feel the need to pedal conspiracy theories about people that were in a school shooting where 17 people died and it just makes me sick,” Hogg said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “It’s immature, rude, and inhuman for these people to destroy the people trying to prevent the death of the future of America because they won’t.”
Following the bogus claims, others teens who survived the mass shooting were also forced to shoot down the conspiracy theories that they weren’t who they said they were.
“I just want to be up here and help my city,” Lizzie Eaton told CNN Wednesday morning. “We just want to make a change… we’re not actors… no one is paying us to do this… we just want to make a difference.”
Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie confirmed to the Times that Hogg and Gonzalez are students, and said that it was “outrageous and disrespectful” to say otherwise.
“If someone just has a different type of opinion, it seems that we want to somehow demonize them or color them as being somehow illegitimate instead of listening,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also came to the defense of Gonzalez and Hogg, tweeting: “Claiming some of the students on tv after #Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency.”
“Thank you,” Hogg replied to Rubio.