Jury Finds Former College President Personally Liable for $50,000 in Victory for Student Rights

By on February 1, 2013

Here’s today’s press release from FIRE:

ATLANTA, February 1, 2013—A federal jury today found former Valdosta State University (VSU) President Ronald M. Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 for violating the due process rights of former student Hayden Barnes in the case of Barnes v. Zaccari. In May 2007, Zaccari expelled Barnes for peacefully protesting Zaccari’s plan to construct two parking garages on campus, calling a collage posted by Barnes on his personal Facebook page a "threatening document" and labeling Barnes a "clear and present danger" to VSU. Barnes first came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help in October 2007.

"College administrators have been blatantly and willfully violating student rights for decades, but they have far too often dodged personal responsibility. Not so today," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "We hope this serves as a much-needed wake up call to college administrators that it’s time to start paying close attention to the basic rights of their students."

"After five years, I finally feel vindicated. This is a victory for me but it’s also a victory for students everywhere," said Barnes. "I hope that other college administrators take heed and see that violating students’ rights can be costly and that they will be held accountable. I thank my legal team and FIRE for making this victory possible and my friends and family for standing by me through this difficult fight."

Barnes’ ordeal began in the spring of 2007, when he protested Zaccari’s plan to construct two new parking garages on campus at a cost of $30 million. By posting flyers and sending emails to Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, Barnes expressed his concerns and proposed what he saw as environmentally friendly alternatives. Barnes also penned a letter to the editor of the VSU student newspaper about the proposed parking garage plans and wrote to Zaccari to ask for an exemption from the mandatory student fee designated for funding the construction.

In response to Barnes’ activism, Zaccari personally ordered that he be "administratively withdrawn" from VSU in May of 2007, ignoring the concerns raised by members of his administration. Zaccari absurdly claimed that Barnes presented a "clear and present danger" to both Zaccari and the VSU campus on the basis of a cut-and-paste collage Barnes had posted on his Facebook page that included pictures of Zaccari, a parking deck, and the caption "S.A.V.E.—Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage." Given no notice or opportunity to defend himself, Barnes came to FIRE for help in October 2007. 

Today’s verdict follows five years of litigation, both at the trial and appellate levels. In January 2008, Barnes filed suit in cooperation with eminent First Amendment attorney and FIRE Legal Network member Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C., and Cary Wiggins of The Wiggins Law Group in Atlanta. 

In September of 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia found that because Zaccari expelled Barnes without notice or a hearing, Zaccari violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process. In its opinion (PDF), the district court ruled that because Zaccari ignored "clearly established" law in punishing Barnes, Zaccari could not avail himself of the defense of "qualified immunity," and could be found personally liable for damages.

Zaccari and the Board of Regents appealed the district court’s ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in October 2010, and oral arguments in the case were heard in Montgomery, Alabama, in November 2011. The Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to Zaccari, finding that Barnes "had a clearly established constitutional right to notice and a hearing before being removed from VSU." Joined by 14 other organizations from across the ideological spectrum concerned about student rights on public campuses, FIRE had authored and filed an amici curiae brief with the Eleventh Circuit in April 2011 urging that result. 

Following the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling, the case returned to federal district court. The trial began on Monday, January 28, 2013, before the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Valdosta Division, and ended today with a verdict in Barnes’ favor. In addition to the $50,000 judgment, attorneys’ fees still remain to be assessed against the losing party. Barnes’ separate breach of contract claim against the Board of Regents remains pending in state court. 

"We are very pleased to have secured a just outcome for Hayden," said Corn-Revere. 

FIRE has aided Barnes since learning of his case in October 2007. FIRE wrote repeatedly to Board of Regents officials, urging them to undo VSU’s unlawful actions and uphold the Constitution within the university system. Under pressure from FIRE and the federal lawsuit against Zaccari and other VSU administrators, the Board of Regents finally reversed Barnes’ expulsion early in 2008, and Zaccari retired months earlier than planned. Under further pressure from FIRE, former VSU President Patrick J. Schloss dismantled VSU’s unconstitutional free speech zone in September 2008.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Valdosta State University and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; will@thefire.org