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Valdosta Update: FIRE Responds to GA Board of Regents’ Non-Response

At FIRE, we’re all too used to fielding vapid, meaningless non-answers from college administrators in response to our concerns. (Sometimes I’m convinced that there’s a secret administrator instruction booklet dedicated to writing slightly insulting—and wholly unwarranted—“buzz off” letters.)
So I wasn’t extremely surprised to receive just such a letter from a Mr. J. Burns Newsome, the Associate Vice Chancellor for the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, with regard to our letter protesting the blatantly unconstitutional expulsion of Valdosta State University student T. Hayden Barnes.
Newsome, writing on behalf of Chancellor Erroll B. Davis, Jr., was careful to assure FIRE that “Chancellor Davis has never opposed any student’s appeal to the Board of Regents.” To the extent that Chancellor Davis presides over a system in which disciplined students may appeal their punishments, Newsome’s statement is technically correct. But that doesn’t mean it’s not misleading. After all, FIRE wasn’t asking Chancellor Davis to allow Barnes to appeal his unjust expulsion. (That would be silly; Barnes’ appeal has already been heard by the Board of Regents, and is now in front of an administrative law judge in Atlanta, with a hearing set for November 26.) Rather, we were asking Chancellor Davis to end the Board’s unconscionable defense of Hayden’s expulsion. As we note in our response:  

[Y]our selective quotation of FIRE’s request suggests a willful misunderstanding. Indeed, our demand could not be clearer. Because the Board of Regents recommended that Barnes’ appeal be heard by an Administrative Law Judge under the purview of the Office of State Administrative Hearings, the interests of Chancellor Davis and the Board of Regents are now being represented by Thurbert E. Baker, Attorney General for the State of Georgia, in a hearing scheduled for November 26, 2007. We ask simply that the Chancellor and the Board of Regents recognize the legal and moral folly of arguing against the Bill of Rights and end their misguided defense of VSU President Ronald Zaccari’s administrative withdrawal of Hayden Barnes, a punishment based solely on clearly protected speech. 

Newsome further notes that he is “confident that an organization as devoted to individual rights as you state yours is will understand that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents us from disclosing the contents of the educational record of any University System student to unauthorized third parties.” Continuing, Newsome says that “[a]s such, neither the Chancellor nor members of his staff are at liberty to discuss with your organization the specifics of any student’s appeal to the Board of Regents.”
Now that would be true, of course, if FIRE hadn’t faxed Chancellor Davis a copy of Barnes’ signed FERPA waiver on October 24, leaving Chancellor Davis and the entire Board of Regents free to discuss Barnes’ case with us. And while we appreciate Newsome’s preoccupation with protecting Barnes, isn’t it a little convenient for the Board of Regents to suddenly start worrying about pesky little things like rights? Again, as we note in our response:  

With regard to Barnes’ rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), FIRE can only say that we wish the delicate concern for Barnes’ rights displayed here had been extended to his constitutionally guaranteed liberties during his time as a student at Valdosta State. 

After this latest letter, maybe we’ll start getting some answers from Chancellor Davis and his staff about why they haven’t immediately dropped their unconstitutional (and embarrassing) case against Hayden Barnes. We’ll keep you posted.

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