Back to school for outspoken student

January 18, 2008

Months after first reviewing the expulsion of a student activist from Valdosta State University, the Georgia Board of Regents agreed to allow T. Hayden Barnes—once dubbed a “clear and present danger” to the campus by its president, Ronald Zaccari—to return to his studies, reversing the university’s May decision to “administratively withdraw” him.

Barnes initially attracted Zaccari’s ire when he publicly criticized the president’s plan to build two parking garages on campus using $30 million of students’ mandatory fees. Besides writing letters to administrators and sending mass e-mail messages, Barnes had posted a collage of images to his Facebook profile that Zaccari took to be a direct threat to his safety. (Other links posted to his Facebook profile included a video contest whose slogan, including the words “Shoot it,” was [mis]interpreted by the administration as a literal call to arms.)

After first appealing to the board, Barnes contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which directed him to a lawyer and publicized the case. Just last week, FIRE announced Barnes’s lawsuit against Valdosta State, alleging that it had violated his First Amendment rights.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t chalk this one up to professional representation,” said William Creeley, a senior program officer at FIRE. “I think when it was just Hayden presenting his case to the Board of Regents… the board had absolutely no incentive to take him seriously and really evaluate the case on the merits. When lawyers are involved and some media attention is garnered,” he said, it becomes a “different equation.”

So far, the board hasn’t made a public announcement; Barnes’s lawyer, Robert Corn-Revere, said he expects a letter outlining the decision soon. The fate of the lawsuit, still pending, is unclear.

“I think that [the decision] can’t help but have some bearing” on the outcome of the lawsuit, “because it acts as an admission of fault in some real way,” Creeley said. A spokeswoman for the university declined to comment.

FIRE is also pressuring Valdosta State to alter its unusually strict speech policy, which mandates a single “free expression area” on the 168-acre campus. Creeley said that Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s president, is currently visiting the public university’s campus to survey the area, which is only available for two hours every day.

“What we’re hoping… is that once Valdosta State starts to see people are concerned about First Amendment rights on campus, then they will correct their policies… without further litigation.”

Still, he said, the organization wouldn’t rule out another lawsuit to drive home its point.

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Schools: Valdosta State University Cases: Valdosta State University: Student Expelled for Peacefully Protesting Parking Garages