Valdosta State University President Ronald M. Zaccari retires today, leaving behind an embarrassing legacy of contempt for his students’ constitutional rights to freedom of speech and due process. Yes, the bell tolls today for Ron Zaccari’s disastrously unconstitutional tenure as VSU’s President―but not the Liberty Bell. (That’s an old FIRE chestnut), by the way, and we’re only too happy to trot it out again on special occasions like this.)
It’s hard to overstate precisely how contemptuous Zaccari has been of the constitutional liberties of VSU students during his presidency. While regular Torch readers will likely be very familiar with the lowlights of Zaccari’s term already, his early retirement offers us a chance to revisit his sorry record.
Most significantly, Zaccari personally orchestrated the expulsion of former VSU student T. Hayden Barnes in May 2007 for engaging in protected political speech―an expulsion that was later overturned by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and is currently the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit. As Barnes’ complaint makes clear, Zaccari alone provided the driving force behind Barnes’ expulsion. Indeed, Zaccari personally ordered that Barnes be "administratively withdrawn" after determining, in a breathtaking fit of paranoia, that Barnes constituted a "clear and present danger" to Zaccari and the VSU campus based on nothing more than a blog post and a collage Barnes posted on Facebook.com. Notified that Barnes’ expulsion was clearly unconstitutional in a letter from FIRE, Zaccari refused to reverse his decision, opting instead for an embarrassing stand-off that resulted in a torrent of negative national and local media attention and the Board’s eventual reversal of Barnes’ expulsion in January 2008. (During this time, Zaccari first announced that he would be retiring earlier than originally planned.) At present, Barnes’ lawsuit against Zaccari and his staff is proceeding apace in federal district court. So while Zaccari is leaving VSU’s campus, the legal ramifications of his actions as president are as of yet not fully realized. Of course, we’ll keep you abreast of all developments.
Further tarnishing Zaccari’s legacy is his oversight of VSU’s wildly unconstitutional free speech zone, which FIRE first brought to his attention in a November 2007 letter. VSU’s "Free Expression Area" is so bad―it limits free expression on the school’s 168 acre campus to just one small outdoor stage, or less than 1% of the campus’ total size, and then only for two hours per day, with reservations required-that it must be seen to be believed. That’s why FIRE produced a short film featuring Barnes and FIRE President Greg Lukianoff to document the restrictive policy, so that the public can see VSU’s shameful free speech quarantine for itself. It’s pretty shocking, and if you haven’t checked it out, you should. (Incidentally, FIRE’s most recent letter to Zaccari regarding the free speech zone was answered late last week. We’ll have full coverage of the school’s reply―and our answer―tomorrow.)
Between expelling a student for protected speech and maintaining one of the worst free speech zones FIRE has ever seen, it’s no surprise that Zaccari earned himself a 2008 Jefferson Muzzle from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, an "award" handed out to our nation’s "most egregious and ridiculous censors." Equally unsurprising is the fact that VSU is now the lone public school on FIRE’s Red Alert list, an "honor" reserved for institutions demonstrating "severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of its students or faculty members."
Perhaps what’s really surprising, in retrospect, is that Zaccari lasted so long as VSU’s President. He won’t be missed, and FIRE will be asking incoming president Dr. Patrick J. Schloss to correct the abuses that festered under Zaccari, restore free speech at VSU and get the school off our Red Alert list. As always, we’ll keep you posted.