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A Legacy of Repression: Valdosta State President’s Early Retirement Can’t Hide Unconstitutional Abuse of Power

It’s hard to blame embattled Valdosta State President Ronald M. Zaccari for announcing his early retirement yesterday. After being caught red-handed violating the constitutional rights of VSU student T. Hayden Barnes, it’s no surprise that Zaccari suddenly wants to get away from it all a little earlier than planned. Being publicly exposed for breaking the law on the job will do that to a person.

But early retirement cannot hide Zaccari’s clear legacy of contempt for liberty.

After all, it was Zaccari who personally ordered Barnes’ expulsion for engaging in clearly protected constitutional speech. It was Zaccari who, in a shocking display of paranoia, deemed Barnes a “clear and present danger” to both VSU and Zaccari himself on the basis of nothing more than a blog post and a crude collage. It was Zaccari who brazenly ignored VSU’s own disciplinary procedures in denying Barnes his constitutional right to due process. And it was Zaccari who frivolously wasted public funds by commandeering law enforcement officers to accompany him in plain-clothes to “high-profile events” and to stay on “high alert,” all out of some apparent delusion that Barnes, a decorated paramedic, was planning to kill or harm him.

As FIRE wrote in our letter to University of Georgia System Chancellor Erroll B. Davis, Jr.:

In what can only be considered a dazzling display of paranoia and self-importance, Zaccari mistook these texts to constitute, in combination, “a specific threat to his safety and a general threat to the safety of the campus,” rather than the quotidian musings of a college student on his website. Indeed, according to VSU’s Statement of Appeal, 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.” (It is to be noted that 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 presented by Barnes, a lapse VSU explains as due to his “concern that the campus would erupt into chaos if the threat against him became public.”)

It strains credulity to believe that an adult American citizen—let alone the president of a public university—could somehow construe the tagline of a advertisement to be not merely an invitation for contest submissions, but rather a “specific threat” to his or her person or a “general threat” to his or her immediate surroundings. Similarly, it is difficult if not impossible to perceive any hint of a threat in Barnes’ offhand statement about cleaning his room. Nor does the inclusion of a hyperlink to an article discussing the national tragedy at Virginia Tech provide any evidence whatsoever that Barnes presented a threat of any kind. If simply discussing the tragic events at Virginia Tech is all that is required to render a citizen a “threat,” then surely much of the American populace could have been considered as such in the aftermath of that event. To infer that Barnes’ hyperlink to an article about the news of the day—news that was surely weighing on the minds of every college student in the nation—is indicative of his presenting a “clear and present danger” is simply ridiculous. To actually expel a student on this basis, as VSU has done here, is to mock our nation’s normative conceptions of fairness and justice. 

Finally, with regards to the collage caption’s reference to the “S.A.V.E.–Zaccari Memorial Parking Deck,” Zaccari’s inference is patently absurd. By using the term “memorial,” Barnes was referring to Zaccari’s repeated mentions of his concern about his “legacy” as VSU’s president. The caption utterly fails to meet the exacting legal definition of a “true threat” as articulated by the Supreme Court in Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003), in which the Court held that only “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals” are outside the boundaries of First Amendment protection. The idea that a reference to a parking garage named after a university president could constitute a serious threat upon that president’s life strains credibility beyond the breaking point.

An examination of the “totality of the circumstances” cited by VSU and the Board of Regents demonstrates that Barnes’ speech—considered either in part or in the aggregate—in no way justifies punishment of any kind, let alone effective expulsion from the university. It is impossible to find evidence of any intent on Barnes’ part to cause any harm whatsoever to fellow students, teachers, university administrators, or President Zaccari. Despite respondents’ clear intimation that the proximity of the Virginia Tech shootings somehow justified removing Barnes from campus as a “preventative measure,” that tragedy is not an excuse for arbitrary expulsion of any impassioned dissenter. Such an argument both distorts and cheapens the sad events of April 16, 2007, and is unworthy of an institution of higher education. Further, no public institution may retaliate against a student for speech fully protected under the First Amendment because others on campus—even the president—feel offended, annoyed, or unreasonably claim to feel subjectively “threatened.” If allowed, such an “exception” to the First Amendment would permit public institutions to deny basic rights virtually at their whim.

Indeed, the facts surrounding Zaccari’s expulsion of Barnes are so shocking that you can’t help wondering if perhaps Zaccari shouldn’t have retired a long, long time ago. When a university president begins to imagine threats to his life in harmless hyperlinks and cut-and-paste collages, it’s probably time to go. When he violates the Constitution to silence students with whom he disagrees, retirement—or termination—becomes absolutely necessary. Unfortunately for whoever is named Valdosta’s next president, the stain of Zaccari’s shocking abuse of power will be very difficult to remove.

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