Judges Let University Prez Face Damage Claim

June 16, 2012

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to let former Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari face a personal damage lawsuit by a student who claims Zaccari unjustly tossed him from the school.

The case originated when Zaccari, when he was still president of Valdosta State, ordered student Thomas Hayden Barnes to be "administratively withdrawn," or expelled, because he alleged Barnes was a threat.

A district court said Barnes could seek damages from Zaccari personally, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court agreed. Now, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education,  Zaccari’s request for a rehearing before the full 11th Circuit was rejected.The student had been campaigning against a plan by Zaccari to spend $30 million of the college’s money for parking garages.

FIRE called the decision a victory for student rights.

The denial of a rehearing "means that the unanimous decision against Zaccari issued by an 11th Circuit panel this past February will not be revisited by the appellate court," FIRE explained.

FIRE said Zaccari could take the liability dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court, but there had been no word on whether that decision had been made.

The battle began in the spring of 2007, when Barnes peacefully protested Zaccari’s plan to spend $30 million of student fee money to construct two parking garages on campus.

Zaccari  expressed his concerns and proposed what he saw as environmentally friendly alternatives in flyers and emails to student and faculty governing bodies, and the board of regents of the University System of Georgia.

Zaccari, against the counsel of his advisers, called Barnes a threat and ordered him "administratively withdrawn" from the school.

Zaccari alleged Barnes was a "clear and present danger" and gave him no opportunity to challenge the punishment.

The lawsuit was filed in 2009, and the next year a federal judge ruled that because Zaccari expelled Barnes without notice or hearing, Barnes’ constitutional right to due process was violated.

The ruling from the 11th Circuit’s three-judge panel said: "The [state university] code repeatedly assures VSU students that they will receive due process before being suspended or expelled. Having made such assurances, Zaccari cannot reverse course and ‘magically declare’ Barnes’s entitlement to his continued enrollment is not a protected property interest."

FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said at the time that the "landmark ruling from the 11th Circuit leaves no doubt that university administrators who choose to ignore the due process rights of their students do so at their peril."

"For too long, college administrators have blatantly ignored their students’ constitutional rights when they deemed it convenient," he said. "With this decision, it appears that courts are finally ready to make them personally pay for that abuse of power."

If Zaccari chooses not to appeal to the Supreme Court, the case would be returned to the district court for hearing on Barnes’ claim.

When the district judge ruled in favor of Barnes, FIRE sent hundreds of letters to college executives to put them on notice that their own hefty personal payment packages could be hit if they violate the rights of students.

"For too long, public college administrators have been intentionally violating the free speech rights of their students, secure in the knowledge that they won’t personally lose a dime should a court rule against them," said Robert Shibley, a senior vice president for FIRE, at the time. "This has given administrators the opportunity to censor whatever opinions they dislike and make all of us pay for it."

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