Eleventh Circuit to University Administrators: Respect Student Rights

By February 9, 2012

In the nearly five years since I first began blogging about student rights here on The Huffington Post, I’ve written many times about the incredible case of former Valdosta State University (VSU) student Hayden Barnes, who was expelled from Georgia’s VSU in April 2007 for peacefully protesting the planned construction of a parking garage on campus. If that sounds crazy, that’s because it is crazy — and Tuesday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed, issuing an important ruling for student rights.

In a unanimous opinion issued late Tuesday, the Eleventh Circuit found that former Valdosta State University president Ronald Zaccari may well have violated Hayden’s constitutional right to due process by expelling him without notice or a hearing. The court held that because Hayden "had a clearly established constitutional right to notice and a hearing before being removed from VSU," Zaccari could lose his "qualified immunity" for ignoring that right.

"Qualified immunity" protects government officials from facing lawsuits simply for doing their jobs. But this immunity is "qualified" because those government officials who, in the course of doing their jobs, violate clearly established constitutional rights that a reasonable person in that position would have known about, lose that immunity against lawsuits. And without immunity from lawsuits, those administrators could be paying for their transgressions out of their own pockets (you know, like you or I would have to do).

Tuesday, the Eleventh Circuit found that, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Hayden (as it was required to do at this stage of the lawsuit), a court could find that Zaccari should not be given qualified immunity. Now, the case returns to the district court, where a jury will get to decide whether or not Zaccari’s actions were, in fact, reasonable. Considering that Zaccari’s main reason for kicking Hayden out of school was that he posted a collage on Facebook, I have to say I don’t like his chances.

The Eleventh Circuit’s ruling is a clear sign that university presidents and administrators that choose to brazenly violate student rights will not be able to do so without real consequences. As a result of Tuesday’s ruling, Zaccari may be found personally liable for damages. That’s the equivalent of a bright neon warning sign to all would-be violators of student rights: Think twice!

My organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org), has much, much more on Hayden’s case here. It’s fascinating stuff, and infuriating stuff, but Tuesday we took one crucial step towards justice.

Schools: Valdosta State University Cases: Valdosta State University: Student Expelled for Peacefully Protesting Parking Garages