ATLANTA, January 12, 2015—This morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit revived the First Amendment retaliation claim of former student Hayden Barnes, marking another victory in his long-running case. Barnes, who was expelled from Georgia’s Valdosta State University (VSU) in 2007 for posting a collage on Facebook, had already emerged victorious on due process grounds and been awarded $50,000, with former VSU president Ronald Zaccari held personally liable for the rights violation. Today’s opinion gives Barnes his day in court on the First Amendment claim and makes important attorneys’ fee rulings favorable to Barnes, opening Zaccari to potentially hundreds of thousands more dollars in liability for damages and attorneys’ fees. Barnes originally sued VSU in 2008 with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
“Once again, a federal appeals court has stepped in to ensure that college administrators can’t get away with trampling students’ well-established rights,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “How much longer—how many more lawsuits—and how many more millions of dollars will it take to get our nation’s colleges and universities out of the doomed business of unconstitutional censorship?”
Barnes’s now-epic case began in the spring of 2007, when Zaccari expelled Barnes from VSU for peacefully protesting, due to environmental concerns, Zaccari’s plan to construct two parking garages on campus. Zaccari absurdly called a collage posted by Barnes on his personal Facebook page a “threatening document” and labeled Barnes a “clear and present danger” to VSU. Zaccari then used this bogus rationale to expel Barnes without a hearing. Barnes sued Zaccari and other VSU administrators in 2008, and in 2013 a federal district court found that Zaccari had violated Barnes’s due process rights. Barnes was awarded $50,000 in damages for which the court determined that Zaccari was personally liable, sending a message to public college administrators that there can be real, personal costs for abuses.
However, other issues remained. In 2010, the district court judge had ruled that Barnes’s First Amendment claim had to be dismissed on the grounds that Barnes had supposedly alleged a conspiracy to violate First Amendment rights, while only Zaccari was found responsible for doing so. Barnes appealed that ruling, arguing that he had sufficiently alleged that Zaccari had committed independent acts of retaliation. Today, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with Barnes, remanding the First Amendment claim back to the lower court for trial. The court also reversed the award of attorneys’ fees to several defendants, calling those awards an abuse of discretion by the trial court.
Attorney Robert Corn-Revere of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C., who has represented Barnes from the beginning, said, “We prevailed on all of the central issues of the appeal, and are a step closer to fully vindicating Hayden Barnes. We are particularly pleased that the Court reinstated the claim against President Zaccari for retaliating against Hayden’s exercise of his First Amendment rights. If there ever was a clear-cut case of unconstitutional retaliation, this is it.”
FIRE, along with a broad coalition of organizations, had filed an amici curiae (friends of the court) brief in 2013 urging today’s outcome. Supporters included the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Cato Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Individual Rights Foundation, the National Coalition Against Censorship, Reason Foundation, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, Students For Liberty, and the Student Press Law Center. Attorney Lawrence G. Walters of Walters Law Group represented FIRE and all signatory organizations in the brief’s filing.
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
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473, email@example.com