ATLANTA, July 23, 2015—Today, more than eight years after his unjust expulsion, student Hayden Barnes’ federal civil rights lawsuit against Georgia’s Valdosta State University (VSU) and former VSU president Ronald Zaccari concluded with the announcement of a $900,000 settlement.
In the spring of 2007, Barnes was expelled from VSU by Zaccari for a satirical environmentalist collage he posted on his personal Facebook page. With the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Barnes fought back by filing a civil rights lawsuit in 2008 against the university, Zaccari, other VSU administrators, and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
“After eight years, and one of the worst abuses of student rights FIRE has ever seen, Hayden Barnes has finally received justice,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “Thanks to Hayden’s courageous stand, would-be censors at public universities nationwide have 900,000 new reasons to respect the free speech and due process rights of their students.”
“I am pleased to have finally reached a resolution. It has been an epic journey,” said Barnes. “However, it was a worthwhile endeavor because I know as a result of this case other students will have their constitutional rights respected. I sincerely appreciate the work of my counsel and of FIRE, both of whom were instrumental in achieving justice.”
Barnes’ years-long ordeal began on May 7, 2007, when Zaccari—angry with Barnes’ peaceful protest against the planned construction of two parking garages on campus—expelled him without a hearing. Absurdly, Zaccari tried to justify Barnes’ expulsion by claiming that a cut-and-paste collage Barnes had posted to Facebook was a “threatening document” and that Barnes presented a “clear and present danger” to VSU.
FIRE wrote twice to University System of Georgia officials in October 2007, urging the Board of Regents to reverse the expulsion and clear Barnes’ record immediately. When the Board of Regents failed to do so, Barnes sued Zaccari and other VSU administrators in January 2008.
Barnes has been represented by eminent First Amendment attorney and FIRE Legal Network member Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine throughout the ensuing litigation. Cary Wiggins of The Wiggins Law Group in Atlanta has served as local counsel.
“However long these cases may take, we are committed to making sure justice is done in the end,” said Corn-Revere. “University officials must understand that they are not free to ignore students’ constitutional rights.”
In addition to the strong message sent by today’s settlement, Barnes v. Zaccari has repeatedly produced important results for student rights over the past seven years.
In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Zaccari could be found personally liable for violating Barnes’ due process rights. The court ruled that because Zaccari ignored Barnes’ “clearly established constitutional right to notice and a hearing before being removed from VSU,” Zaccari could not shield himself with the defense of “qualified immunity.” (“Qualified immunity” protects government employees against personal liability in lawsuits, but only if their actions do not violate “clearly established” law of which a reasonable person in the employee’s position would be aware.) In other words, Zaccari’s abuse of power was so egregious that the Eleventh Circuit found he could be held personally liable for his wrongdoing.
FIRE urged the court to reach this important result. Joined by 14 other organizations from across the ideological spectrum, FIRE authored and filed an amici curiae brief with the Eleventh Circuit in April 2011 arguing that public college administrators who violate the constitutional rights of students must be held liable for doing so. Atlanta-based attorney Cory G. Begner of Begner & Begner, P.C. represented FIRE and all signatory organizations in the brief’s filing.
In 2013, a federal jury awarded Barnes $50,000 for the violation of his due process rights.
This past January, the Eleventh Circuit again found in Barnes’ favor, ruling that his First Amendment retaliation claim against Zaccari had been improperly dismissed by a federal district court. Joined again by a broad coalition of 11 other organizations, FIRE filed an amici curiae brief with the Eleventh Circuit in December 2013 asking it to reach this conclusion. Attorney Lawrence G. Walters of Walters Law Group represented FIRE and all signatory organizations in the brief’s filing.
In restoring Barnes’ First Amendment retaliation claim against Zaccari, the Eleventh Circuit’s January ruling sent the case back to the federal district court and exposed Zaccari to potentially hundreds of thousands more dollars in liability for damages and attorneys’ fees. Today’s settlement concludes the case.
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.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473, firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Corn-Revere, Partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP: 202-973-4225; email@example.com