Much like the horrifying University of Delaware case, sometimes a story just sounds too outrageous to be true. So when I first learned that Valdosta State University (VSU), a public school in south Georgia, had expelled a student for a Facebook.com collage protesting the construction of a parking garage on campus, I admit I was skeptical. Yes, I have seen hundreds of absurd and tyrannical abuses by college administrators over the years, but surely he must have done something more serious than just protest a garage.
But it turns out the story was just as outrageous as it sounded. In fact, the more I learned, the more shocking it became. Not only had VSU expelled T. Hayden Barnes, an undergraduate concerned about the environmental effects of building a huge, expensive parking facility on campus, it had also labeled him a “clear and present danger” to VSU President Ronald Zaccari—all for nothing more than peacefully protesting the proposed parking garages.
This past March, VSU’s student newspaper ran an article announcing the school’s plans to construct two parking decks on campus at a cost of a cool $30 million, to be paid for by mandatory student fees. Barnes, a civic-minded student with a passion for environmental issues, was opposed to the idea. Weren’t there better things to do with all that money—like build an expanded student bus system, for starters? Barnes did what any student activist worth their wheat paste would do: he got active. Barnes put up flyers, started a blog, and wrote a letter to the editor, urging students to consider whether more parking spaces were worth the hefty investment and asking them to contact VSU President Ron Zaccari to voice their opinions.
Word quickly got back to Barnes that the flyers had angered Zaccari. Not wanting to upset anyone, Barnes took down the flyers and his blog and wrote Zaccari an apology, to which he received no reply. In early April, however, Barnes learned that the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia was about to vote on the parking garage project’s authorization. After voicing his opposition over the phone to several Board members, Barnes requested a meeting with President Zaccari to talk about the matter personally. Instead of a friendly back-and-forth, however, Zaccari told Barnes that he had “personally embarrassed” him, asking Barnes “who he thought he was.” After another apology from Barnes, Zaccari told him that he “could not forgive him” and that Barnes had “made life hard” for Zaccari. Finally, Zaccari repeatedly referred to the importance of his “legacy” as president of VSU.
Several days later, Barnes posted a collage to his Facebook.com account. The collage, a cut-and-paste affair, featured 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, all assembled in a quick hodge-podge of symbols. To drive the point home even further, 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 “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” a barb at the president’s alleged concern with his “legacy.”
Pretty tame stuff in the world of student advocacy, right?
Well, VSU apparently didn’t think so. On May 7, Barnes returned to his dorm room to find a “Notice of Administrative Withdrawal” slipped under his door. The notice, signed by Zaccari, 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.” To gain readmission to VSU, the notice required Barnes to provide documentation from a psychiatrist proving he was not “a danger to [himself] and others,” as well as proof of on-going psychiatric therapy. Finally, the notice gave Barnes 48 hours to leave campus, effective immediately.
Barnes has appealed the decision, which is now before an administrative law judge in Atlanta under the purview of Georgia’s Office of State Administrative Hearings (OSAH).
But the question remains: How does posting one harmless Facebook.com collage transform a student activist into a “clear and present danger”?
Much of the answer can be found in VSU’s Statement of Appeal—and all signs point toward “mean and paranoid university president with no understanding of campus free speech or the First Amendment.”
Before the OSAH judge, VSU is arguing that Zaccari believed Barnes presented “a specific threat to his [Zaccari’s] safety and a general threat to the safety of the campus” because Barnes (a) had “posted a link on his website page to an article discussing the massacre at Virginia Tech”; (b) had 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 (c) had commented on his website that he was “cleaning out and rearranging his room and thus, his mind, or so he hopes.”
The idea that a reference to a parking garage named after a university president—coupled with a web ad, a link to the news of the day, and an off-hand student comment—could constitute a serious threat upon that president’s life strains credibility far beyond the breaking point. But that’s exactly what VSU is arguing. In court. With a straight face.
The flyers, the letter to the editor, the collage, the hyperlinks, and the website comment are all crystal-clear examples of political speech protected by the First Amendment, by which VSU is bound as a public university. And while the horrible events at Virginia Tech last April have unquestionably scarred our nation, but it cannot be used as an excuse by public officials to silence any campus dissenter they wish.
I’ve seen a lot of abuses of power on university campuses in my time, but this one and the Delaware case are two of the worst I have ever seen. These injustices must not stand and, if you agree, you might want explain to President Ronald Zaccari and Chancellor Erroll B. Davis, Jr., why their behavior is so very wrong. o;