FIRE is pleased to announce today that the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia has finally reversed the expulsion of Valdosta State University (VSU) student T. Hayden Barnes. The Board’s decision provides a welcome signal that the Board recognizes and respects the legal authority of the First Amendment on public university campuses throughout the state.
And it only took them six months.
That’s right: it took the Board of Regents six long months to decide that yes, the First Amendment still governs student expression at public universities like VSU.
Back in August of 2007, when they first heard Barnes’s appeal, the Board had the opportunity to reverse Barnes’s expulsion. The evidence was as clear then as it is now: Barnes was “administratively withdrawn” from VSU last May on the order of VSU President Ronald Zaccari, largely on the basis of a digital photo collage Barnes had posted on his Facebook.com page. Zaccari claimed the collage as evidence that Barnes presented a “clear and present danger” to Zaccari and the VSU campus, going so far as putting uniformed police officers on high alert and assigning himself a personal security detail. As far as the First Amendment is concerned, however, Barnes’s collage—like the rest of Barnes’s peaceful protests against Zaccari’s plan to build two parking garages on VSU’s campus—clearly constitutes protected speech. It’s not a close call—and the Board of Regents could have ended Barnes’s ordeal right then and there.
But, inexplicably, they didn’t. Faced with a clear choice between upholding the Constitution or silencing a student protest, the Board of Regents punted. The Board decided to kick the case without comment up to Georgia’s Office of State Administrative Hearings (OSAH), where an administrative law judge in Atlanta would determine Barnes’s fate. A hearing was scheduled for late November of last year, meaning that Barnes would remain expelled while a new academic year began. Making matters worse, while Barnes would be arguing his case alone, VSU would be represented as a state agency by a Deputy Attorney General—hardly a fair fight.
That’s when Barnes contacted FIRE. In late October, we first wrote Erroll B. Davis, Jr., Chancellor of the University System of Georgia, outlining our deep concerns with Barnes’s treatment and the Board’s decision not to sustain his appeal. After receiving a classic non-response, FIRE kept up the pressure, eventually securing Barnes representation by noted First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere. (In the meantime, and perhaps not coincidentally, President Zaccari announced his retirement.)
In early January, Barnes received word via counsel that the Board had decided to rehear his appeal, just before the matter was scheduled to be addressed in hearings before the state judge in Atlanta. At yesterday’s meeting, the Board finally decided that Barnes’s expulsion could not stand. That’s certainly a step in the right direction towardrighting the wrong suffered by Barnes at the hands of Zaccari, and Barnes’s pending federal lawsuit will ensure that Zaccari has to answer for his actions in court.
It’s not that FIRE isn’t thankful that the Board finally came to its senses. We are. We just can’t help but wonder what took them so long.