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Student Files Federal Lawsuit Against Valdosta State University After Expulsion for Peaceful Protest
VALDOSTA, Ga., January 10, 2008—Expelled Valdosta State University (VSU) student T. Hayden Barnes has filed a lawsuit against the university, VSU President Ronald Zaccari, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, and other VSU administrators after being punished for publicly protesting the school’s decision to construct two new parking garages on campus. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in cooperation with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and eminent First Amendment attorney and FIRE Legal Network member Robert Corn-Revere.
“VSU’s concerted effort to silence and punish Hayden Barnes is an unconscionable attempt to violate his First Amendment rights—and VSU, as a public institution, is legally required to protect these rights,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Now VSU must answer for its actions in court.”
The complaint alleges that VSU President Ronald Zaccari not only wrongfully violated Barnes’s right to freedom of speech, but also conspired with his co-defendants—other VSU officials—to expel Barnes. The suit emphasizes Zaccari’s irrational insistence that Barnes represented a threat and a “clear and present danger,” despite findings to the contrary by mental health professionals, including a VSU student counselor. Barnes is asking the court for damages, including punitive damages and attorney’s fees.
Barnes’s struggles began last spring, when he peacefully protested Zaccari’s plan to spend $30 million of student fees to construct two parking garages on campus. By posting flyers and sending e-mails to Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents, Barnes sought to detail his concerns about the parking structures and propose environmentally friendly options. Barnes also penned a letter to the editor of the VSU student paper 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.
Zaccari played a central role in Barnes’s expulsion, personally ordering Barnes to be “administratively withdrawn” from campus.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.com page that included pictures of Zaccari, a parking deck, and the caption “S.A.V.E.—Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” a sarcastic reference to concerns Barnes says Zaccari had expressed in a meeting about his “legacy” as president of VSU.
FIRE wrote repeatedly to University System of Georgia officials, urging them to undo VSU’s unlawful actions and uphold the Constitution within the university system. VSU’s brazen disregard for Barnes’s rights has earned it a place on FIRE’s Red Alert List. The school also maintains a blatantly unconstitutional free speech zone, which FIRE is currently fighting to dismantle. VSU has remained silent on the free speech zone thus far.
“VSU has failed to heed repeated warnings that it may not violate its students’ constitutional rights,” Lukianoff said. “FIRE is confident that the law will ultimately prevail and that VSU’s indefensible actions will not be allowed to stand. FIRE would like to thank Robert Corn-Revere and all the lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C., and Cook, Youngelson & Wiggins in Atlanta who helped bring this much-needed lawsuit.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Valdosta State University and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Ronald Zaccari, President, Valdosta State University: 229-333-5952; email@example.com
Erroll B. Davis, Jr., Chancellor of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia: 404-656-2202; firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Corn-Revere, Partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP: 202-973-4225; email@example.com
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