How Can Valdosta State University Get off FIRE’s Red Alert List?

By on August 27, 2008

Following the debut of FIRE’s full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report‘s "America’s Best Colleges" issue, released nationwide this week, we thought it would be appropriate to explain exactly how each of our five Red Alert schools can rid themselves of the unfortunate distinction of being the worst of the worst when it comes to individual rights on campus. On Tuesday, Adam described the steps Colorado College and Brandeis University need to take to restore their good names. Today, I’ll discuss how Georgia’s Valdosta State University can do the same.

First, it’s important to explain how Valdosta Statea public university in southern Georgia with an enrollment of roughly 11,000arrived on FIRE’s radar screen in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s a story that says a mouthful about the state of free speech on our nation’s campuses. It began in March of 2007, when T. Hayden Barnes, an environmentally-minded VSU student (and the bright young man pictured in our advertisement), became concerned about the school’s plan to build two new parking garages, financed by mandatory student fees. Hayden thought the money would be better spent on other, more environmentally-friendly initiatives, and set about communicating his concerns. He communicated them to the student paper, the student body at large, then-VSU President Ronald Zaccari, and members of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. So far, so good, right? Just a student speaking out on an issue of importance to him and his community.

Unfortunately, no. As our October 2007 press release explains, Hayden was quickly reprimanded in a personal meeting with Zaccari and was told to stop his one-man campaign against the parking garages. Barnes apologized, and for a few days, he did abandon his efforts. But simply giving up didn’t feel right, so Hayden, frustrated, posted a collage on his personal Facebook.com page depicting, among other things, a picture of the proposed parking garages with the caption "S.A.V.E. Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage." (The caption was a sarcastic reference to another student group and Zaccari’s repeated references to his "legacy" in their private meeting.) In response, Zaccari "administratively withdrew" (read: expelled) Hayden, disingenuously claiming that the collage constituted a "clear and present danger" to Zaccari personally and to the VSU campus in general.

Nearly eight months later, after FIRE’s intervention and with the help of FIRE Legal Network member and eminent First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere, Hayden’s appeal of Zaccari’s decision was finally successful, and the Board of Regents overturned Hayden’s expulsion. Now, the newly-retired Zaccari and other VSU administrators are defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging a clear violation of Hayden’s First Amendment rights. Hayden’s lawsuit is still pending, but the verdict in the court of public opinion is clear. In addition to scathing media coverage from around the country, Zaccari’s actions earned him a 2008 Jefferson Muzzle Award from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, an "honor" reserved for "the country’s most egregious and ridiculous censors."

But while Hayden’s horrible caseunquestionably one of the worst we at FIRE have ever seenis what landed VSU on FIRE’s Red Alert list to start, it’s now a matter for federal courts, and thus beyond the capability of the school’s incoming leadership to resolve. Instead, what FIRE wants from VSU is the complete dismantling of the school’s other shameful free speech scandalnamely, their wildly unconstitutional free speech zone, featured here in a FIRE video.

Indeed, VSU’s free speech zone is so restrictive that it’s more appropriate for China than an American public university. Named our March 2008 Speech Code of the Month, VSU’s Free Expression Area Guidelines establish a free speech zone that limits free speech on campus to a tiny twelve-foot stage out of VSU’s large 168 acre campus. Making matters even worse, VSU only allows students to engage in expressive activity on the stage for two non-consecutive hours a day, between noon and 1 PM and then between 5 and 6 PM. To top it off, VSU requires students to reserve the space 48 hours in advanceand even then, VSU only allows activities that "have an educational or cultural purpose."

All in all, VSU’s free speech zone is a travesty for constitutional rights on campus. To get off our Red Alert list, VSU simply can end its quarantine on free speech. What is it scared of?

Schools: Valdosta State University