Student Takes His School to the Cleaners for $900k

July 24, 2015

By Blake Neff at The Daily Caller

A student expelled from a public college for dubious reasons has been vindicated, and has picked up a cool $900,000 in the process.

Way back in 2007, Hayden Barnes was a student at Georgia’s Valdosta State University. The school at the time was planning to build two new parking garages on campus, and Barnes was strongly opposed. So, Barnes expressed his frustration on social media, posting an image collage to Facebook that, among other things, included a picture of Valdosta’s then-president Ronald Zaccari.

Zaccari promptly flew off the handle, labeling the collage a “threatening document” because it dubbed one of the garages the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage” (Zaccari said the name implied a threat to murder him). Declaring that Barnes was an imminent threat to both Valdosta at large and Zaccari’s own personal safety, the president unilaterally expelled him without even holding a hearing.

Since then, Barnes graduated from a different college, got a law degree, got married and had a kid. But he remained convinced that his expulsion from Valdosta was a grave wrong, and was determined to be vindicated in the courts. His initial lawsuit against the school transformed into a bruising seven-year legal battle.

Barnes’s case became a cause célèbre to advocates for campus civil liberties, being pushed with particular vigor by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). In 2013, Barnes was awarded $50,000 after a federal court found his due process rights had been violated by the school. Barnes’s fight continued, though, as he also pursued a separate claim that his First Amendment right to free speech had been improperly suppressed.

Finally, in January, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling overturning a lower court’s ruling against Barnes, reinstating his First Amendment claim against the school. The ruling set the stage for a huge payout from Valdosta, as it would have to cover Barnes’ eight years of attorney fees along with a civil judgment reflecting the school’s suppression of his civil rights.

At long last, the school has thrown in the towel, agreeing to make a huge $900,000 payment to Barnes as part of a settlement. The settlement was first announced by FIRE, with president Greg Lukianoff hailing it as a huge victory for student civil rights.

‘The Barnes case is bigger than a David versus Goliath story worthy of its own inspirational Hollywood movie,” Lukianoff wrote for The Huffington Post. “It points the way to how we can stop university administrators from abusing their power in the future.”

The case is an important one for student rights, not only because it affirmed Barnes’ right to free speech, but also because it shows the potential personal exposure for administrators who overreach in restricting student liberties. During Barnes’ lawsuit, the courts not only found Valdosta to be liable for its actions, but also found Zaccari to be personally liable for his actions. In other words, school officials who act egregiously in suppressing students’ rights could wind up paying out of pocket for their actions, a possible consequence FIRE has hailed a crucial for defending rights on campus.

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