ATLANTA, April 12, 2011—On behalf of a broad coalition of 15 organizations concerned about student rights on public campuses, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed an amici curiae brief yesterday with the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in the case of Barnes v. Zaccari. The brief asks the Eleventh Circuit to uphold a federal district court’s September 2010 ruling denying the defense of qualified immunity to former Valdosta State University (VSU) President Ronald M. Zaccari, arguing that public college administrators who violate the constitutional rights of students should be held liable for doing so.
The brief, authored by FIRE, was jointly submitted to the Eleventh Circuit by FIRE, 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.
"For too long, public college administrators have been able to ignore the Constitution and treat state institutions like personal fiefdoms," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "It’s time for this consequence-free abuse of adult students’ constitutional rights to end."
Former VSU student T. Hayden 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, 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In response, Zaccari personally ordered that Barnes be "administratively withdrawn" from campus. 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.
A September 2010 ruling by 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 as well as the contract created between VSU and Barnes by the student handbook. In its opinion, the district court ruled that because Zaccari ignored "clearly established" law in punishing Barnes, Zaccari does not enjoy "qualified immunity" and is personally liable for damages. United States District Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. ruled that the "undisputed facts show that Zaccari ignored the lawyers’ warnings that withdrawing Barnes would require due process," finding Zaccari’s arguments to the contrary "disingenuous."
The district court also held that the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia breached its contract with Barnes by failing to follow the procedures for student discipline established in VSU’s student handbook. The case is now before the Eleventh Circuit on appeal from Zaccari and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
The amici curiae brief filed yesterday by FIRE’s coalition argues that if the district court’s decision to deny Zaccari qualified immunity is reversed, administrators across the country will be emboldened to disregard their constitutional obligations. In the brief, the coalition states that "[d]enial of the defense of qualified immunity is entirely appropriate—and, in fact, required—when a public official acts as Zaccari did here, willfully abandoning the constrictions of binding legal precedent in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights." Atlanta-based attorney Cory G. Begner of Begner & Begner, P.C. represented FIRE and all signatory organizations in the brief’s filing.
"The district court got it right: Ronald Zaccari’s violation of Barnes’ right to due process is precisely the type of egregious disregard for the constitutional rights of others that warrants denial of qualified immunity, and by ignoring its own policies, the Board of Regents violated the contract it had with Barnes," said Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. "FIRE is very pleased to thank each of the signatories to the brief for their commitment to defending student rights at our nation’s public colleges and universities. We are also indebted to Cory Begner for her invaluable assistance in filing this important brief."
FIRE has aided Barnes since learning of his case in October 2007. Since that time, 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 of the University System of Georgia finally reversed Barnes’ expulsion early in 2008, and Zaccari retired months earlier than planned. Then, under further pressure from FIRE, current VSU President Patrick J. Schloss dismantled VSU’s unconstitutional free speech zone in September 2008.
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