VALDOSTA, Ga., October 24, 2007—Valdosta State University (VSU) has expelled student T. Hayden Barnes for publicly protesting the school’s decision to construct two new parking decks on campus. After VSU President Ronald M. Zaccari labeled Barnes a “clear and present danger” and mandated that Barnes submit certifications of his mental health and on-going therapy as conditions of his readmission to VSU, Barnes contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“A kind of madness seems to be gripping our colleges, one in which merely claiming a student poses a ‘threat’—no matter how absurd or attenuated the allegation may be—is enough to punish even the most clearly protected speech,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “This case represents the extreme of this troubling trend. Hayden Barnes did nothing wrong; the claim that his speech was threatening is specious, and the university’s decision to expel him is truly chilling.”
VSU’s student newspaper ran an article on March 22, 2007, outlining VSU’s plans to spend $30 million of mandatory student fee money to build two new parking decks on campus. Barnes—concerned with the environmental repercussions of the construction—posted flyers detailing potential alternatives and included contact information for Zaccari and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. Barnes also emailed Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents detailing his concerns about the parking structures and proposing environmentally friendly options. On March 26, Barnes was informed by members of VSU’s Students Against Violating the Environment (SAVE) that Zaccari was upset by his flyers. In response, Barnes apologized to Zaccari and took the flyers down.
On April 13, Barnes posted a collage of pictures on his Facebook.com page, including pictures of Zaccari, a parking deck, a bulldozer excavating trees, a flattened globe marked by a tire tread, automobile exhaust, a gas mask, an asthma inhaler, a public bus underneath the “not allowed” symbol, United States currency, and a photocopy of the Climate Change Statement of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. The collage was also marked with a variety of captions, including “No Blood for Oil,” “More Smog,” “Bus system that might have been,” “Climate change statement from President Zaccari,” and “S.A.V.E.—Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” a sarcastic reference to concerns he says Zaccari had expressed in a meeting about his “legacy” as president of VSU.
Barnes also penned a letter to the editor of the VSU student paper about the proposed parking deck plans on April 19 and wrote to Zaccari on April 26 to ask for an exemption from the mandatory student fee designated for funding the parking garage construction.
According to VSU, Barnes also “posted a link on his website page to an article discussing the massacre at Virginia Tech”; linked to an advertisement for a film competition sponsored by commercial photography site Webshots.com, which featured the tagline “Shoot it. Upload it. Get famous. Project Spotlight is looking for the next big thing. Are you it?”; and commented on his website that he was “cleaning out and rearranging his room and thus, his mind, or so he hopes.”
On May 7, Barnes found a notice of administrative withdrawal from Zaccari underneath his dormitory door. The notice informed Barnes that “as a result of recent activities directed towards me by you, included [sic] but not limited to the attached threatening document [the Facebook collage], you are considered to present a clear and present danger to this campus.”
Barnes appealed Zaccari’s decision on May 21, including a letter of support from a faculty member and a clean bill of mental health from a psychiatrist. After reviewing the appeal, the Board of Regents referred the case to an Administrative Law Judge for further hearing. The Office of State Administrative Hearings (OSAH) now has jurisdiction over Barnes’ appeal, and a hearing date has been set for November 26.
Zaccari amazingly claims that Barnes’ actions constituted “a specific threat to his [Zaccari’s] safety and a general threat to the safety of the campus.” According to VSU, on the basis of this perceived “threat,” Zaccari went so far as to spend taxpayer money to be “accompanied to high-profile events by plain-clothed police officers,” in addition to placing uniformed police officers on “high alert.” Despite his alleged perception of Barnes as a “clear and present danger,” at no time did Zaccari see fit to notify the campus of the danger supposedly presented by Barnes.
FIRE wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Erroll B. Davis, Jr., explaining that Barnes has effectively been expelled for engaging in protected speech and has been denied due process rights.
“VSU has punished a vocal student for peacefully protesting a university parking garage,” Lukianoff said. “FIRE urges readers to look at the documentation of this case and ask whether a web ad, a blog link, and a barb about a ‘memorial garage’ really equaled a terror risk necessitating a student’s immediate expulsion. In its attempt to eliminate a student activist, the school has eliminated basic fairness, free speech, and due process.”
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.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Samantha Harris, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Ronald Zaccari, President, Valdosta State University: 229-333-5952; firstname.lastname@example.org
Erroll B. Davis, Jr., Chancellor of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia: 404-656-2202; email@example.com