ATLANTA, February 8, 2012—In a victory for student rights, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a unanimous decision late yesterday in the case of Barnes v. Zaccari, holding that former Valdosta State University (VSU) President Ronald M. Zaccari may be found personally liable for violating the due process rights of former VSU student T. Hayden Barnes. Barnes first came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help in October 2007.
“This landmark ruling from the Eleventh Circuit leaves no doubt that university administrators who choose to ignore the due process rights of their students do so at their peril,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “For too long, college administrators have blatantly ignored their students’ constitutional rights when they deemed it convenient. With this decision, it appears that courts are finally ready to make them personally pay for that abuse of power.”
Joined by 14 other organizations concerned about student rights on public campuses, FIRE authored and filed an amici curiae brief with the Eleventh Circuit in April 2011 urging this result. FIRE’s brief argued that public college administrators who violate the constitutional rights of students must be held liable for doing so. In yesterday’s opinion, the Eleventh Circuit found that Barnes “had a clearly established constitutional right to notice and a hearing before being removed from VSU” and that Zaccari could lose his “qualified immunity” from suit for ignoring that right. The case now returns to the district court.
Barnes’ ordeal began in the spring of 2007, when he peacefully protested Zaccari’s plan to spend $30 million of student fee money to construct two parking garages on campus. By posting flyers and sending emails to Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, Barnes expressed his concerns and proposed what he saw as environmentally friendly alternatives. Barnes also penned a letter to the editor of the VSU student newspaper about the proposed parking garage plans and wrote to Zaccari to ask for an exemption from the mandatory student fee designated for funding the construction.
In response to Barnes’ activism, Zaccari personally ordered that he be “administratively withdrawn” from VSU, ignoring the concerns raised by members of his administration. Zaccari claimed that Barnes presented a “clear and present danger” to both Zaccari and the VSU campus on the basis of a cut-and-paste collage Barnes had posted on his Facebook page that included pictures of Zaccari, a parking deck, and the caption “S.A.V.E.—Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage.” Barnes was given no notice or opportunity to defend himself, and came to FIRE for help. In January 2008, Barnes filed suit in cooperation with eminent First Amendment attorney and FIRE Legal Network member Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C.
The Eleventh Circuit’s decision affirms a federal district court’s September 2010 ruling that denied qualified immunity to Zaccari at this stage in the proceedings. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia found that because Zaccari expelled Barnes without notice or a hearing, Zaccari violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process. In its opinion, the district court ruled that because Zaccari ignored “clearly established” law in punishing Barnes, Zaccari could not avail himself of the defense of “qualified immunity,” and could be found personally liable for damages.
Zaccari and the Board of Regents appealed the district court’s ruling to the Eleventh Circuit in October 2010, and oral arguments in the case were heard in Montgomery, Alabama, in November 2011. Corn-Revere argued Barnes’ case. While yesterday’s ruling upheld the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to Zaccari, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a breach of contract finding against the Board of Regents, holding that the State of Georgia had not consented to waive its Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court for breach of contract claims.
“The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is a clear win for student rights,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. “It’s been nearly five years since Hayden was unconstitutionally kicked out of Valdosta State, but justice is on its way.”
FIRE has aided Barnes since learning of his case in October 2007. FIRE wrote repeatedly to University System of Georgia officials, urging them to undo VSU’s unlawful actions and uphold the Constitution within the university system. Under pressure from FIRE and the federal lawsuit against Zaccari and other VSU administrators, the Board of Regents finally reversed Barnes’ expulsion early in 2008, and Zaccari retired months earlier than planned. Under further pressure from FIRE, former VSU President Patrick J. Schloss dismantled VSU’s unconstitutional free speech zone in September 2008.
FIRE’s amici curiae brief to the Eleventh Circuit was joined by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Cato Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Feminists for Free Expression, the Individual Rights Foundation, the Libertarian Law Council, the National Association of Scholars, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Youth Rights Association, Reason Foundation, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, and Students For Liberty. Atlanta-based attorney Cory G. Begner of Begner & Begner, P.C. 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.
Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org