In May of 2007, Valdosta State University (VSU) student Hayden Barnes peacefully protested the university’s plans to build two parking structures at a cost of $30 million. His protest took the form of a collage of cut-and-paste photos with a caption calling the project the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage”—a line mocking the university’s president at the time, Ronald M. Zaccari. Barnes posted this on his personal Facebook page, distributed fliers, and sent emails to Zaccari and the Board of Regents. For this activism, Zaccari branded Barnes “a clear and present danger” to VSU and personally ordered him to be “administratively withdrawn” from the university. Barnes was given no notice nor opportunity to defend himself.
Barnes contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to ask for their assistance, and after five years of litigation at the trial and appellate level, Barnes and FIRE achieved justice. FIRE reports that the District Court for Northern Georgia and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Zaccari had violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process, and held Zaccari personally liable for $50,000. The court explained 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.”
“College administrators have been blatantly and willfully violating student rights for decades, but they have far too often dodged personal responsibility. Not so today,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “We hope this serves as a much-needed wake up call to college administrators that it’s time to start paying close attention to the basic rights of their students.”
Congratulations to Barnes and to FIRE for their tenacity in fighting a long battle to defend individual rights. Once again, the students of VSU are free to express themselves without fear of punishment.