In ‘Huffington Post,’ FIRE President Explains Importance of Valdosta State Win

By on September 23, 2010

In a new blog entry for The Huffington Post, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff discusses this month’s federal district court victory for former Valdosta State University student T. Hayden Barnes.

Greg assesses the importance of the case for student rights and explains why the court’s ruling should be a wake-up call for university administrators who violate the constitutional rights of students. Noting that the decision "has already sent shockwaves through the higher education community," Greg writes:

But most importantly, Barnes v. Zaccari serves as a warning to administrators that might violate the basic rights of their students that they can be held personally financially liable for doing so. As I have been explaining for years, public employees only enjoy "qualified" immunity from liability, not "absolute" immunity. That is, they cannot be held personally liable in a court of law for simply doing their job if they had no reason to know they were violating the Constitution. For example, if a police officer conducts a search of someone’s vehicle in a way that is later found to be unconstitutional, he cannot be held personally liable if he has no way to know the action would later be ruled unconstitutional. If, however, that same police officer, for example, prevented citizens from going to vote because of the color of their skin, he could not claim the protections of qualified immunity because there is no way for him to honestly claim he didn’t know that preventing citizens from voting on the basis of their race wasn’t constitutionally kosher.

Likewise, here a university president, acting under the authority given to him by the state of Georgia, kicked a student out without any due process for doing nothing more than expressing his opposition to a parking garage. Especially given the fact that he was actually told by legal counsel that this action violated the Constitution, Zaccari in no way deserved the protection of qualified immunity or the indemnification provided by the taxpayers of Georgia.

And why is this such an important victory for student rights? For decades now, universities have maintained policies and practices that flatly violate the constitutional rights of their students. Sometimes those violations come in the form of speech codes, like one that banned "offensive" speech on campus and was overturned just this summer. Other times, they come in the form of "free speech zones" that limit free speech to a tiny corner of campus, as at Southwestern College in California. And other times the violations are raw retaliation against students for criticizing the university, as in this case and the case of Andre Massena at SUNY Binghamton. And all this despite the fact that in each of these cases the law was clearly on the students’ side.

I urge you to read Greg’s whole piece.

Schools: Valdosta State University