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Free Speech and Due Process Trampled at Valdosta State

Valdosta State University (VSU) has used its power to expel a dissenting student from campus without any due process simply for having engaged in constitutionally protected speech. As we detail in our press release today, T. Hayden Barnes was “administratively withdrawn” from VSU after vocally protesting the university’s plans to spend $30 million of mandatory student fee money to construct two new parking decks—decks that Barnes believes are environmentally irresponsible.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of this case is the bizarre and melodramatic behavior of VSU’s president, Ronald Zaccari. As part of his campaign against the parking decks, Barnes posted a collage on his page that included pictures of Zaccari, a parking deck, and various environmental hazards. The collage was also marked with a variety of captions, including one in which Barnes referred to the parking deck as the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” in reference to concerns Zaccari had apparently expressed in a meeting about his “legacy” as VSU’s president. Because of this and some totally unrelated content that Barnes had posted on his website—including a link to an article about Virginia Tech and an ad for a photography competition with the tagline “Shoot it. Upload it. Get famous. Project Spotlight is looking for the next big thing. Are you it?”—Zaccari inexplicably decided that Barnes was out for his life. As we wrote in the press release:

According to VSU, on the basis of this perceived “threat,” Zaccari went so far as to spend taxpayer money to be “accompanied to high-profile events by plain-clothed police officers,” in addition to placing uniformed police officers on “high alert.” Despite his alleged perception of Barnes as a “clear and present danger,” at no time did Zaccari see fit to notify the campus of the danger supposedly presented by Barnes.

On May 7, 2007, Barnes was informed in a letter from Zaccari that he had been “administratively withdrawn” from the university because he was a “clear and present danger” to Zaccari and the campus. Barnes received no hearing, no right to confront his accuser, nor—save the right to appeal—any of the other due process protections that VSU, as a public university, is obliged to grant him.
Barnes has appealed the university’s decision, and the matter is currently before an Administrative Law Judge, with a hearing set for November 26th. FIRE wrote to the Chancellor of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia yesterday. In that letter, we stated that:

T. Hayden Barnes cannot legally be expelled by VSU and deprived of his Fifth Amendment right to due process for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment. FIRE requests that your administration immediately drop its opposition to Barnes’ appeal, reverse the administrative withdrawal order against him, and ensure that any record of this matter be expunged from his administrative record.

We hope that the Board of Regents will have the good sense to see that justice is done in this case.

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