Former VSU Student Awarded $900,000 in Free Speech Case

July 25, 2015

By Adam Floyd at The Moultrie Observer

VALDOSTA — A lawsuit filed by a former Valdosta State University student against the school’s former president ended Thursday with a near million-dollar settlement.

In 2008, Hayden Barnes filed a civil rights suit against VSU, then president Ronald Zaccari, other school administrators and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.

The suit stemmed from Barnes’ expulsion from the school in the spring of 2007 after he posted a “satirical environmentalist collage” on his personal Facebook page, according to Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), that helped Barnes file the suit.

Claims against VSU and the Board of Regents were dismissed from the case in 2012, leaving Zaccari as the sole defendant.

He was represented by the Georgia Department of Administrative Services that settled the case Thursday for $900,000.

“After eight years, and one of the worst abuses of student rights FIRE has ever seen, Hayden Barnes has finally received justice,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “Thanks to Hayden’s courageous stand, would-be censors at public universities nationwide have 900,000 new reasons to respect the free-speech and due-process rights of their students.”

In court filings, Barnes claimed Zaccari conspired to remove him from the university in 2007 after a series of protests by Barnes regarding the construction of parking decks. The protests, which included flyers put up around the university and calls to the Board of Regents, culminated when Barnes posted a photo collage on Facebook that Zaccari viewed as a threat to his safety.

The photo collage referred to the parking decks as the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage” and was attached to a letter to Barnes from Zaccari explaining that he had been administratively withdrawn.

“I am pleased to have finally reached a resolution. It has been an epic journey,” said Barnes. “However, it was a worthwhile endeavor because I know as a result of this case other students will have their constitutional rights respected. I sincerely appreciate the work of my counsel and of FIRE, both of whom were instrumental in achieving justice.”

VSU Interim President Cecil P. Staton released the following statement Friday concerning the settlement:

“Many of you have seen or read news reports regarding the settlement agreement that was reached yesterday in the Hayden Barnes civil rights lawsuit. Contrary to these reports, the Georgia Department of Administrative Services made the decision to settle this case and is funding the settlement amount in its entirety. Claims against the Board of Regents and Valdosta State University were dismissed from this case in 2012. We are pleased this matter has been finally closed.”

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