Hayden Barnes, an environmentally-minded student at Valdosta State University (VSU) in Georgia, has been expelled for criticizing the construction of two new parking garages on campus, according to a local news report.
Concerned that new garages would provide little incentive for VSU students to rely less on cars, Barnes openly advocated for money budgeted for the parking garages to be spent elsewhere. Barnes spread his message by sending letters to his student newspaper, posting flyers on campus, and including pictures of the proposed parking garages on his page on the popular social networking site Facebook.com.
However, rather than successfully derailing plans for the garages’ construction, the Facebook photos seem to have prompted Barnes’ expulsion. Apparently, captions for the online photos suggested that the garages could be named in memory of current VSU President Ronald Zaccari—and while Barnes maintains he meant to suggest that students would remember Zaccari’s term by the garages, Zaccari himself apparently felt otherwise. Barnes was expelled without a hearing after posting the pictures on Facebook, receiving a letter calling him a “clear and present danger to the campus” because of his environmental advocacy.
Thus far, President Zaccari has refused to answer questions about Barnes’ expulsion, which is an unfortunate development—because if there’s one thing this case raises, it is questions about Zaccari’s judgment and motivation. Zaccari’s apparent eagerness to imply the existence of a death threat from a caption on a picture posted by a concerned student on Facebook seems to indicate his desire to find some pretext for kicking Barnes off campus. After all, if Zaccari was really convinced that Barnes’ environmental activism somehow presented a credible threat to his life or constituted a “clear and present danger to the campus,” wouldn’t he have been far more likely to have sought the immediate aid of law enforcement, rather than simply sending Barnes a letter expelling him?
According to the local news report, students at VSU agree that Zaccari “crossed the line”:
“I guess because [Barnes] says memorial, that refers to death often, so I guess [Zaccari] is saying that he thought this guy was going to attack him—but he didn’t really attack him he just put some pictures up,” said student Aurora Mintz.
Barnes says it wasn’t a threat, but a message to show how Zaccari will be remembered by students. Most students agreed.
“I don't see anything threatening about this,” said student Andrew Marriage. “He just put a bunch of pictures together.”
“I think the president crossed the line with expelling him,” added VSU student Ravan Ross.
Barnes says he was given no hearing and expelled without the chance to defend himself, something he finds outrageous when men his age are fighting in Iraq.
“We have certain rights in this country and people are dying for those rights and people have died,” Barnes said. “And to be shut out of the system like this and told to be quiet is very disheartening and very frustrating.”
Barnes is absolutely right. Being expelled from a public university for pretextual reasons simply because the university president is irritated by public criticism of his decisions is completely outrageous—and, more than likely, completely unconstitutional. President Zaccari has confirmed that legal proceedings are currently underway, and the report indicates that the State Board of Regents has asked an administrative law judge to review Barnes’ case.
You can bet that FIRE will keep an eye on the proceedings.