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Eleventh Circuit Hears Arguments in Major Student Rights Case, 'Barnes v. Zaccari'

In a case that FIRE followers will remember dating back to 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit today will hear oral arguments in Barnes v. Zaccari, with important protections for students' campus rights at stake.

The case concerns Hayden Barnes' long ordeal at Valdosta State University (VSU) in Georgia, which originated with the decision of Ronald Zaccari, then-President of VSU, to expel him without a shred of due process for publicly protesting Zaccari's plan to build two parking garages on campus using $30 million of mandatory student fees. Barnes expressed his concerns (and proposed what he saw as environmentally friendly alternatives) by posting flyers and sending emails to Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents. He also wrote a letter to the editor of the VSU student newspaper about the proposed parking garages and wrote to Zaccari to ask for an exemption from the fee designated for funding the project.

Zaccari had no tolerance for Barnes' perspective or his activism. Shockingly, he personally ordered that Barnes be "administratively withdrawn" (kicked out—via a note slipped under his dorm room door, no less!) from the university. In so doing, he nonsensically 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." Barnes was given no notice or opportunity to defend himself.

Frustrated by these developments, Barnes sued Zaccari and other university officials in federal court in early 2008, claiming violations of his freedom of speech, due process, and other rights. In September 2010, a federal district court held that Zaccari was not entitled to "qualified immunity" for his violation of Barnes' due process rights, thereby leaving him open to personal liability for monetary damages. Qualified immunity protects public officials from personal liability for alleged violations of an individual's constitutional rights if the right in question was not "clearly established" at the time, such that a reasonable person in the official's position would have known about the violation. As we have argued from the beginning, if Zaccari's actions in this case do not constitute a violation of clearly established law regarding student due process rights, then it is difficult to imagine what exactly would.

We hailed the district court's decision at the time as a significant development in the fight for individual rights on campus, because piercing qualified immunity and forcing university officials to pay out of their own pockets for violating students' fundamental rights is an important part of incentivizing proper administrative behavior and respect for students' rights on campus. You can read more about this legal strategy in FIRE's own legal scholarship.

Once Zaccari appealed the loss of his qualified immunity to the Eleventh Circuit, FIRE, along with an impressively broad coalition of organizations that we joined together, filed an amici curiae ("friends of the court") brief before the Eleventh Circuit in April of this year. In our brief, we urged the federal appellate court to affirm the lower court's ruling, and thereby set a major precedent for the protection of students' rights. As our brief states, in pertinent part:

Barnes' case is a shocking example of the unconstitutional abuses marring our public institutions of higher education. Because Barnes exercised his First Amendment rights by peacefully protesting the planned construction of a parking facility, he was targeted for expulsion by former Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari. The record below makes clear that Zaccari, embarrassed and vindictive, entirely disregarded the repeated warnings of his staff in a zealous, single-minded effort to silence Barnes by removing him from campus—but only after cynically painting him as a "threat," despite the complete lack of any evidence to that effect.

Possessing clear knowledge of the constitutional rights to which Barnes was entitled, Zaccari nevertheless ignored longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook, and the counsel of his fellow administrators. While Zaccari had been notified that expelling Barnes without notice of the charges against him or any form of hearing would violate Barnes' due process rights, he chose to do so regardless. Denial of the defense of qualified immunity is entirely appropriate—and, in fact, required—when a public official acts as Zaccari did here, willfully abandoning the constrictions of binding legal precedent in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights.

College administrators nationwide are watching this case closely. The desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so. Given the egregious nature of the rights violations at issue here, granting Zaccari qualified immunity will have a profound effect on college administrators' sense of obligation to safeguard students' constitutional rights. If students like Hayden Barnes are unable to vindicate their rights after suffering abuses like those before the court, would-be censors across the country will be free to flout constitutional obligations with impunity. If this result is permitted, both our public system of higher education and society at large will suffer.

For these very compelling reasons, we hope that, beginning with today's oral arguments, the Eleventh Circuit will take an important stand for students' fundamental rights on campus.

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