In an insightful column for Pajamas Media, FIRE’s Robert Shibley warns public university administrators that they face personal liability for restricting students’ free speech rights. Robert discusses our certified mailing last week to public university presidents and general counsels across the nation, detailing legal developments in 2010 that make the state of the law on campus speech codes clearer than ever before.
This year, for the first time in FIRE’s memory, a (former) university president has been held personally liable for violating the constitutional rights of a student. Ronald Zaccari, then president of Valdosta State University in Georgia, summarily expelled student Hayden Barnes after he posted a collage on Facebook making fun of the president’s project to build two parking garages on campus. For this heinous crime, he woke up one morning to a letter under his dorm room door telling him to get out. Barnes took Zaccari to court, where, in what will be a landmark precedent if upheld on appeal, Zaccari was determined to have ignored "clearly established" law in punishing Barnes and therefore did not enjoy qualified immunity for his offense against the First Amendment.
This has the potential to fundamentally change the incentive structure that leads to campus censorship. Instead of indulging the natural tendency to silence one’s opponents or capitulating to censor-happy pressure groups on campus, public university presidents and other administrators will have to consider, "Is silencing my critics or placating these people really worth the possibility that I will be paying thousands of dollars of my own money?"
Be sure to read Robert’s piece in full here.