February 7, 2013

In what could be a startling wakeup call to university administrators whose actions sometimes are challenged on constitutional grounds, a jury has found former Valdosta State University President Ronald M. Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 damages for the school’s due process violations of a former student.

According to a report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Zaccari had waged a campaign against student Hayden Barnes after Barnes protested Zaccari’s plan to build two parking garages on campus.

The administrator had called Barnes’ personal Facebook page a “threatening document” and labeled the student a “clear and present danger.”

WND reported earlier when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Zaccari’s request for protection and decided to let a jury determine whether Barnes was due damages on his claim that Zaccari unjustly tossed him from the school.

The case originated when Zaccari, when he was still president of Valdosta State, ordered Barnes to be “administratively withdrawn,” or expelled, because he alleged Barnes was a threat.

The student had been campaigning against a plan by Zaccari to spend $30 million of the college’s money for parking garages.

A district court said Barnes could seek damages from Zaccari personally, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court agreed.

FIRE now has reported the jury found Zaccari liable for $50,000 in damages.

“College administrators have been blatantly and willfully violating student rights for decades, but they have far too often dodged personal responsibility. Not so today,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “We hope this serves as a much-needed wakeup call to college administrators that it’s time to start paying close attention to the basic rights of their students.”

Barnes told FIRE that he feels vindicated after the five-year fight.

“This is a victory for me but it’s also a victory for students everywhere. I hope that other college administrators take heed and see that violating students’ rights can be costly and that they will be held accountable. I thank my legal team and FIRE for making this victory possible and my friends and family for standing by me through this difficult fight.”

Barnes had protested Zaccari’s plan to build the parking garages – at a cost of $30 million.

“By posting flyers and sending emails to Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the board of regents of the university system of Georgia, 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,” Fire reported.

Zaccari’s response was that he ordered Barnes to be “administratively withdrawn” from VSU in May of 2007. The move came after members of his administration had raised concerns about whether that was proper.

“Zaccari absurdly 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,’” FIRE said.

In the original district court ruling, the judge found Zaccari violated Barnes rights by expelling him without a notice or a hearing. The ruling said because Zaccari violated the law, he was not eligible for immunity from lawsuits.

FIRE said its pressure on the university system prompted the regents to reverse Barnes’ expulsion in 2008, and Zaccari soon retired.

“Under further pressure from FIRE, former VSU President Patrick J. Schloss dismantled VSU’s unconstitutional free speech zone in September 2008,” FIRE noted.

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