Good News from Georgia: Federal District Court Issues Important First Order in Valdosta State Lawsuit

By on November 21, 2008

On Wednesday, District Court Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr. issued his first order in the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by former Valdosta State University (VSU) student Hayden Barnes in January. In a promising development for Barnesand, more generally, for free speech on campuses across the countryJudge Pannell’s order upheld the core of Barnes’ civil claims against recently retired VSU President Ronald M. Zaccari and other members of his administration.

Loyal Torch readers will remember Barnes’ incredible ordeal at Valdosta State Universityindeed, FIRE prepared a short film highlighting the school’s unconstitutional behavior in Marchbut for those who don’t, here’s a quick primer on one of the worst abuses of power FIRE has ever seen. In May of 2007, concerned about the environmental impact of the imminent construction of two parking garages at VSU (at the cost of thirty million dollars), Barnes began a lonely protest against the plan. Barnes’ outspoken activism irritated then-President Zaccari to such an extent that Zaccari had Barnes "administratively withdrawn" (read: expelled) for allegedly presenting a "clear and present danger" to Zaccari personally and to the campus generally. In a blatantly transparent attempt to justify kicking Barnes off campus, Zaccari cited a political collage Barnes had posted to his account on the popular social networking site Facebook.com as proof of the "danger" posed by Barnes, despite the fact that no reasonable person could possibly view the collage as anything other than clearly protected political speech. After FIRE’s intervention, Barnes’ expulsion was eventually overturned by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. However, after having his First Amendment right to free expression so thoroughly and unequivocally violated, Barnes saw fit to bring a civil rights suit against Zaccari and members of his administration with the help of eminent First Amendment attorney and FIRE Legal Network member Robert Corn-Revere. Barnes’ complaint can be read in full here.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of Barnes’ mistreatment, it’s worth reviewing Judge Pannell’s order in depth.

First, let’s examine Barnes’ suit.

Barnes’ federal civil rights action names Zaccari, VSU, the Board of Regents, and several VSU administrators (including VSU’s university counsel, the Vice President for Student Affairs, the Dean of Students, a student counselor, and the director of VSU’s student counseling center) as defendants. Barnes’ suit consists of seven counts: (1) that all defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by depriving Barnes of his First Amendment rights; (2) that all defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by depriving Barnes of his rights to procedural and substantive due process guaranteed by the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions; (3) that each individual defendant (i.e., not just VSU and the Board of Regents) is individually liable for violating § 1983 by denying Barnes his right to free speech; (4) that each individual defendant is individually liable for violating § 1983 by denying Barnes his right to due process; (5) that VSU and the Board of Regents violated a binding contract with Barnes by failing to observe policies outlined in VSU’s student handbook; (6) that each individual defendant in their official capacity violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by using Barnes’ visits to the university counseling center against him as the basis for intentional discrimination; and finally (7) that each individual defendant in his or her official capacity violated the Rehabilitation Act by using Barnes’ visits to the university counseling center against him as the basis for intentional discrimination. All of these counts are alleged (and, of course, much more fully explained and supported) in Barnes’ initial complaint. I know that’s a lot of legalese, but in order to understand what Judge Pannell’s order means, it’s important to lay out the allegations fully.

A quick word about § 1983 is appropriate. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 as a way to provide legal redress to victims of racial violence in the Reconstruction-era South by offering citizens a chance to sue to enforce their Fourteenth Amendment rights. It provides a cause of action to citizens who have been deprived of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" against any person acting "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia." In other words, it allows civil suits to be brought against government officials who deprive citizens of their constitutional or statutory rights, privileges, or immunities.

In response, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the facts as Barnes alleged were insufficient to support the counts levied against them. Filing a motion to dismiss is standard practice, as it gives defendants a chance to challenge the plaintiff’s allegations prior to engaging in discovery and allows courts to throw out charges lacking merit. It’s therefore a good opportunity for observers to get an early, substantive sense of the way in which a court perceives the value of a particular claim. That’s why yesterday’s order contains excellent news for Barnes: Judge Pannell upheld five of Barnes’ seven counts in full or in part, meaning that they have withstood VSU’s initial challenge, and will now proceed.

Let’s review Pannell’s order, charge for charge.

First, Pannell granted VSU’s motion to dismiss Barnes’ first two counts, which alleged that all defendants violated Barnes’ First Amendment and due process rights. The court found that the Eleventh Amendment’s immunity clause (granting states immunity in federal court) was applicable here, because Georgia had not waived its immunity and because Congress hadn’t abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity when creating § 1983. This holding sounds worse for Barnes than it is, because while the court dismissed Barnes’ first two counts, it upheld Barnes’ third and fourth counts, which alleged that the defendants could be held liable in their individual capacities for violating Barnes’ constitutional rights under § 1983.

In other words, the State of Georgia (and the defendants acting in their official capacity) may enjoy immunity, but Zaccari and his fellow administrators, when considered in their personal capacity, do not. That’s because the law states that Eleventh Amendment immunity is only available for state officials "as long as ‘their conduct violates no clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’" (Citations omitted.) Because Zaccari and company so obviously violated Barnes’ right to free expression, and because a reasonable university official would have known that the acts in question violated that right, the court held that "the defendants were on notice and had fair warning that retaliating against [Barnes] for his speech and expression against the proposed construction of the parking garage would violate his constitutional rights. Therefore, the defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity as to the retaliation claim." That’s a huge win for Barnes, as it indicates that when the facts are viewed in the light most favorable to Barnes, the defendants aren’t entitled to qualified immunity. Therefore, Barnes’ counts against the individual defendants surviveand now the defendants have to file an answer. In other words, the court has essentially held that Barnes’ case must be taken seriously. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that counts three and four were dismissed against the director of VSU’s counseling center, as the court found that Barnes’ complaint had failed to establish that he had clearly retaliated against Barnes for the exercise of his First Amendment rights.)

Finally, the court denied VSU’s motion to dismiss Barnes’ ADA count, the Rehabilitation Act count, and the breach of contract count. Again, this is good news for Barnes, demonstrating that the court believes the facts as provided are sufficient to justify his allegations if viewed in the light most favorable to Barnes.

The bottom line is that the majority of Barnes’ claims have survived VSU’s initial pushback. Now, VSU must file an answer to Barnes’ complaint, in which they’ll either admit or deny the allegations against them and establish their defenses and their version of the facts.

Of course, we’ll report on VSU’s answer when it’s filed. In the meantime, we’re very pleased by the court’s orderand we hope that other public university officials take note of this encouraging development for liberty.

Schools: Valdosta State University