Press and Academic Community React to Federal Court Victory in Georgia

By September 8, 2010

News of the federal court victory for former Valdosta State University (VSU) student Hayden Barnes is making its way through the media today. The prospect of a university administrator being held personally liable for damages for violating clearly established law regarding student rights must be that much scarier, now that it has happened to former VSU president Ronald Zaccari. As Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr.’s order last Friday explained, Zaccari is personally liable for damages against Barnes after ignoring the advice of both VSU’s attorneys and VSU’s written policies and expelling Barnes without even the most minimum elements of due process. Torch readers, of course, remember the instigating incident that precipitated Zaccari’s draconian response: a peaceful campaign against Zaccari’s plan to spend $30 million of student fee money on new parking garages; you can see our video chronicling Barnes’ travails at VSU here:

Inside Higher Ed and NBC affiliate WALB 10 of Albany, Georgia are among those to carry early word of Barnes’ victory. In addition, Sara Lipka, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a rundown of the casedocumented extensively over the past three years here on The Torchas well as the reactions of a number of college administrators and higher education experts. In Lipka’s article, attorney Gary Pavela makes a point we have argued here before with respect to Barnes’ case: that colleges have used the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007 to dispense with the due process rights of students deemed even vaguely threatening. As the Chronicle reports:

Mr. Barnes was dismissed from Valdosta State a few weeks after the shootings at Virginia Tech. At that time, university judicial systems were already becoming less legalistic, and students’ due-process rights were eroding, said Gary Pavela, a lawyer who frequently consults with colleges. Changes in policy and perspective after the tragedy at Virginia Tech have further jeopardized students’ rights, he said.

"It’s a great temptation to seize upon the fears that arose out of Virginia Tech and apply the label of ‘threat’ or ‘perceived threat,’ and then use it to get rid of people who bother us," said Mr. Pavela. "We are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves in thinking we can dispense with due process."

Zaccari, moreover, perceived a threat where no other person did, and he tossed out Barnes for being a "clear and present danger" despite every other person advising Zaccari that Barnes was a danger to nobody.

Allen Groves, Dean of Students at the University of Virginia, drives Pavela’s point home by stressing the importance of due process rights being respected even for (if not especially for) those deemed most "threatening" by their universities:

"Obviously you’re always trying to see where the line falls," Mr. Groves said. Even when a student is perceived as a threat, "those due-process rights don’t go away," he said. "There has to be some opportunity to be heard."

Indeed, Barnes got no hearing and no notice before he had his administrative withdrawal notice slipped under his door.

Peter Lake of Stetson University, meanwhile, makes the obvious point to the Chronicle (made a million times here if we’ve made it once) that so long as administrators play by the book and respect student rights, they shouldn’t need to worry about becoming the next Ronald Zaccari:

"A dominant administrator can too easily ram something through," said Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. "Let the people who know what they’re doing do their job."

The Student Press Law Center also has an analysis of the case, which makes two important points. First, as the SPLC’s Mike Hiestand points out, the outcome of Barnes’ case strengthens the case for university student handbooks being treated legally as binding contracts:

[The] finding adds to a growing body of law that makes clear promises made by schools in handbooks, school charters, "Student Rights and Responsibility" documents and other university statements can provide students with legal protections that extend beyond those provided by more traditional law. While most cases have so far involved promises made to students about the fairness of campus disciplinary systems, the Student Press Law Center has long argued that schools should also be held legally accountable for violating their own student media policies and other provisions promising to protect student speech.

Importantly, such breach-of-contract claims have been successful not only at public schools, but also at private institutions, where students are unable to pursue constitutionally based due process claims.

Second, Hiestand posits that the piercing of Zaccari’s qualified immunity as a university president has the potential to change the tide of student rights court cases, whereas piercing qualified immunity previously had been a significant hurdle:

Finally, the judge dismissed Zaccari’s claim that, as a public university president, he should be entitled to "qualified immunity."  Claims of qualified immunity have become significant hurdles in a number of recent student speech cases, with judges at times giving school officials extraordinary leeway in pushing the legal limits. In his ruling, the judge found that Zaccari had violated "clearly established law" in ignoring the warning of university counsel that expelling Barnes without proper notice and a hearing was illegal. In dismissing the qualified immunity claim, the court held that Zaccari was personally liable for monetary damages awarded Barnes.

Hiestand’s observations are right on the money, and FIRE will explore them further this week on The Torch as we continue to update readers on the reaction to this landmark victory for student rights.

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