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FIRE and Broad Coalition File Brief Defending Free Speech in Student 'Facebook Collage' Case

Late yesterday, 11 organizations joined the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in filing an amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief in the case of Barnes v. Zaccari. The brief asks the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to reverse a federal district court’s September 2010 ruling dismissing former Valdosta State University (VSU) student Hayden Barnes’ First Amendment claim against former VSU President Ronald M. Zaccari.

In spring 2007, Zaccari expelled Barnes for peacefully protesting Zaccari’s plan to construct two parking garages on campus, calling a collage posted by Barnes on his personal Facebook page a “threatening document” and labeling Barnes a “clear and present danger” to VSU.

Yesterday’s brief was jointly submitted to the Eleventh Circuit by FIRE, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Cato Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Individual Rights Foundation, the National Coalition Against CensorshipReason Foundation, the Southeastern Legal FoundationStudents For Liberty, and the Student Press Law Center.

“FIRE is extraordinarily proud to have assembled this excellent free speech coalition to once again ask for justice in a now-epic case that began with a student simply trying to speak his mind,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “The law is entirely on Hayden Barnes’ side. The Eleventh Circuit must not shy away from vigorously vindicating the right to dissent on campus.”

Barnes has already prevailed on a separate due process claim. A federal jury awarded Barnes $50,000 in compensatory damages this February, holding Zaccari personally liable for violating Barnes’ constitutional right to due process by expelling him without notice or a hearing.

The coalition’s brief also argues that the district court failed to properly consider the public benefit of Barnes’ victory in discounting the attorneys’ fees awarded to Barnes. Attorney Lawrence G. Walters of Walters Law Group represented FIRE and all signatory organizations in the brief’s filing.

Barnes’ ordeal began in May 2007, when he protested Zaccari’s plan to spend $30 million of student fee money to construct two parking garages on campus. By posting flyers and sending emails to Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents, 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 project.

In response, Zaccari personally ordered that Barnes be “administratively withdrawn” from campus. Zaccari 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, and came to FIRE for help. In January 2008, Barnes filed suit in cooperation with eminent First Amendment attorney and FIRE Legal Network member Robert Corn-Revere.

FIRE has aided Barnes since learning of his case in October 2007. Since that time, FIRE has written repeatedly to University System of Georgia officials, urging them to undo VSU’s unlawful actions and uphold the Constitution within the public university system. Under pressure from FIRE and the federal lawsuit against Zaccari and other VSU administrators, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia finally reversed Barnes’ expulsion early in 2008, and Zaccari retired months earlier than previously planned. Then, under further pressure from FIRE, then-president of VSU Patrick J. Schloss dismantled VSU’s unconstitutional free speech zone policy in September 2008.

Stay tuned to The Torch for updates on Barnes’ case.

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