Maybe he shouldn’t have spoken his mind

By January 11, 2008

T. Hayden Barnes opposed his university’s plan to build two large parking garages with $30 million from students’ mandatory fees. So last spring, he did what any student activist would do: He posted fliers criticizing the plan, wrote mass e-mails to students, sent letters to administrators and wrote a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper. While that kind of campaign might be enough to annoy university officials, Barnes never thought it would get him expelled.

Rather than ignore him or set up a meeting with concerned students, Valdosta State University, in Georgia, informed Barnes, then a sophomore, that he had been “administratively withdrawn” effective May 7, 2007. In a letter apparently slipped under his dorm room door, Ronald Zaccari, the university’s president, wrote that he “present[ed] a clear and present danger to this campus” and referred to the “attached threatening document,” a printout of an image from an album on Barnes’s Facebook profile. The collage featured a picture of a parking garage, a photo of Zaccari, a bulldozer, the words “No Blood for Oil” and the title “S.A.V.E.-Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” a reference to a campus environmental group and Barnes’s contention that the president sought to make the structures part of his legacy at the university.

The letter also said that in order to return as a student, a non-university psychiatrist would have to certify that Barnes was not a threat to himself or anyone else, and that he would receive “on-going therapy.” After he appealed, with endorsements from a psychiatrist and a professor, the Georgia Board of Regents “didn’t do the right thing and reverse the expulsion,” said William Creeley, a senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that defends students’ free expression rights and helped Barnes secure legal counsel.

“Sometimes there will come along a set of facts where you read it and you think, they couldn’t possibly have done this,” said Robert Corn-Revere, Barnes’s attorney and an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Then you look at it [and realize that] yes, they did.”

Corn-Revere wrote to the University System of Georgia and was told only that the institution couldn’t discuss the case because of federal privacy law. (Creeley said public universities often “hide behind FERPA,” even though in this case Barnes had provided a waiver to his rights under the law, whose name stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.) On Wednesday, he filed suit against the university in federal court, Zaccari and the Board of Regents under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The university released a statement to the press: “As this is a pending legal matter, we are not at liberty to discuss the particulars of this issue at this time.”

In a reply to Barnes’s complaint to the university, the Board of Regents said Barnes had contacted system-wide administrators and board members, “telling them that he had met with President Zaccari on this issue, when he had not.” It also referenced the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre, which occurred around the time of the dispute between Barnes and the university.

As additional evidence of the threat posed by Barnes, the document referred to a link he posted to his Facebook profile whose accompanying graphic read: “Shoot it. Upload it. Get famous. Project Spotlight is searching for the next big thing. Are you it?” It doesn’t mention that Project Spotlight was an online digital video contest and that “shoot” in that context meant “record.” The appeal also mentions that Barnes’s profile stated, at one point, that he was “cleaning out and rearranging his room and thus, his mind, or so he hopes.” That was likely a status update, commonly used by Facebook members to update their friends on what they’re doing at a particular moment—whether literally or metaphorically.

After Zaccari saw a printout of Barnes’s Facebook page, he was subsequently “accompanied to high-profile events by plain-clothed police officers, and uniformed police officers were placed on high alert,” according to the document. The president has since announced his retirement, six months earlier than expected.

Creeley suggested that Zaccari is using Virginia Tech as a pretext for violating Barnes’s rights as a student at a public university and said his behavior was either “dazzlingly paranoid” or “disingenuous.”

“Knowing that Barnes had availed himself of counseling services made available to all students by VSU, Zaccari secretly and repeatedly met with Barnes’s counselor seeking to justify his decision to expel him,” the lawsuit states. “What he learned from both the campus counseling center and from Barnes’s private psychiatrist who was consulted in the matter, however, was that Barnes had never exhibited any violent tendencies and that he did not represent any danger either to himself or to others. Quite to the contrary, despite a background in which he had been forced to cope with some difficult family issues from an early age, Barnes had developed into an engaged student, was a licensed and decorated emergency medical technician, and was politically aware and involved.”

FIRE is simultaneously pressuring Valdosta State to reverse its “free speech area” policy, which is unusually rigid in restricting student expression to a single stage on the 168-acre campus, only between the hours of 12 and 1 p.m. and 5 and 6 p.m., with prior registration.

“Treating students as though they are caged animals is pretty reprehensible,” Creeley said.

Download file "Maybe He Shouldn"

Schools: Valdosta State University