Students Have Free Speech and Due Process Rights Too

February 5, 2013

This past Friday, a federal jury in Atlanta sent a powerful message to university administrators across the nation: you cannot violate students’ free speech and due process rights with impunity. The jury found Valdosta State University president Ronald Zaccaripersonally liable for $50,000 in damages for expelling former VSU student Hayden Barnes, who peacefully protested a planned $30-million campus parking garage. The trial and award followed a ruling last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that Zaccarri could not claim the immunity given to public officials acting in their official capacities because he should have known that Barnes was entitled to notice and a hearing before being expelled.

Barnes’s saga began in 2007, when Zaccarri announced, and Barnes protested, the proposed garage construction.  Barnes’s activities included sending emails to student and faculty governing bodies, writing letters to the editor of the VSU student newspaper, and composing a satirical collage on Facebook. In retaliation for these acts, Zaccari ordered that Barnes be “administratively withdrawn” from VSU, without any hearing before his expulsion in May 2007.

Barnes sued Zaccarri in 2010, and the federal district court quickly ruled that that Zaccarri had violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process and that the administrator could not avail himself of qualified immunity because he had ignored “clearly established” law. When Zaccarri appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, Cato joined an amicus brief filed on behalf of 15 organizations, successfully asking the court to affirm on both First Amendment and due process grounds.

As stated in the brief, the “desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so.” The immense importance of constitutional rights on public university campus is due in no small part to the reluctance of school administrators to abide by clearly established law protecting student rights. 

Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials who sincerely believe their actions are reasonable and constitutional, not those who willfully and maliciously ignore well known law in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights.  In this case, Zaccarri even rejected the advice of in-house counsel concerning the process required before Barnes could be deprived of his enrollment at VSU and neglected to abide by the procedures set forth in the VSU Student Handbook.

This verdict is cause for celebration for those concerned with individual rights.  It will encourage students to exercise and defend their freedom of speech and due process, serving as a warning to administrators that they may not willfully disregard those rights. Perhaps most importantly, it vindicates Hayden Barnes, who has endured a grueling three years of litigation in order to earn, in his own words, “a victory for students everywhere.”

Thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for orchestrating this case, including finding longtime Cato ally Robert Corn-Revere to be Barnes’s counsel and asking Cato to join its amicus brief.  Read FIRE’s press release on Barnes v. Zaccari.

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