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Victory in Federal Court for Student Expelled for Peaceful Protest; University President Held Personally Responsible for Rights Violation

More than three years after being expelled from Valdosta State University (VSU) for engaging in peaceful protest, former VSU student T. Hayden Barnes has won his federal civil rights lawsuit against former VSU President Ronald Zaccari. In an opinion issued late Friday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia found that because Zaccari expelled Barnes without notice or a hearing, Zaccari violated Barnes' constitutional right to due process as well as the contract created between VSU and Barnes by the student handbook. The court also found that because Zaccari ignored "clearly established" law in punishing Barnes, Zaccari did not enjoy "qualified immunity" and is personally liable for damages—a landmark for student rights and a dire warning to college administrators that they disregard students' rights at their own peril.

Barnes' ordeal began in the spring of 2007, when he peacefully protested Zaccari's plan to spend $30 million of student fee money 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 expressed his concerns and proposed what he saw as environmentally friendly alternatives. Barnes also penned a letter to the editor of the VSU student newspaper 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.

In response, Zaccari personally ordered that Barnes be "administratively withdrawn" from campus.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 page that included pictures of Zaccari, a parking deck, and the caption "S.A.V.E.—Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage." Barnes was given no notice or opportunity to defend himself.

As FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley wrote here in October 2007, shortly after FIRE learned of Barnes' case, Zaccari's offenses were so legion and so blatant—trashing not only Barnes' constitutional rights but also VSU's own clearly defined policies—that it was hard to know where to start. Will wrote, "Talk about completely throwing any normative notion of fairness or good faith out the window!"

Barnes filed suit in January 2008 in cooperation with eminent First Amendment attorney and FIRE Legal Network member Robert Corn-Revere. In Friday's decision, the court found Zaccari solely responsible for Barnes' expulsion. United States District Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr. ruled that the "undisputed facts show that Zaccari ignored the lawyers' warnings that withdrawing Barnes would require due process," finding Zaccari's arguments to the contrary "disingenuous." Because Zaccari disregarded clearly established law regarding the right of students facing disciplinary action to receive notice of charges and a hearing, the court found that Zaccari "caused Barnes to be deprived of his rights" and was not entitled to the defense of qualified immunity. As a result, Zaccari is now personally liable for damages owed to Barnes.

Judge Pannell also held that the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia breached its contract with Barnes by failing to follow the procedures for student discipline established in VSU's student handbook.

FIRE had written repeatedly to University System of Georgia officials, urging them to undo VSU's unlawful actions and uphold the Constitution within the university system. Under pressure from FIRE and the federal lawsuit against Zaccari and other VSU administrators, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia finally reversed Barnes' expulsion early in 2008, and Zaccari retired months earlier than planned. FIRE continued to pile the public pressure on, however, producing this short video to highlight VSU's myriad abuses of free speech, including its appalling free speech zone:

After FIRE ran a full-page advertisement featuring Barnes in U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings issue, current VSU President Patrick J. Schloss dismantled VSU's unconstitutional free speech zone in September 2008, while Barnes' case proceeded.

While Zaccari is officially being held liable for Barnes' damages, the taxpayers of the State of Georgia are not quite off the hook, since the Board of Regents is also liable for the breach of contract caused by Zaccari's failure to uphold Barnes' rights.

Barnes, who graduated from Kennesaw State University and now attends the University of Baltimore School of Law, has issued a statement praising the court's decision and thanking FIRE and his attorneys, which included Cary Wiggins of The Wiggins Law Group in Atlanta in addition to Corn-Revere, of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Washington, D.C. His statement echoes what FIRE has been saying throughout his ordeal: "I hope this order serves as yet another reminder to college and university administrators around the country that they are not immune from the Constitution."

FIRE's position is vindicated by the result, but there is still much work to do. Torch readers may recall that at the end of 2008, FIRE issued a certified mailing to the leaders of 266 public colleges and universities, warning of the threat to qualified immunity posed by their disregard of student rights. It seems to me they may be due for another such reminder, now that the loss of qualified immunity is a demonstrated danger for college and university administrators.

We'll have more on this important victory in upcoming days.

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