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Victory in Federal Court for Student Expelled for Peaceful Protest

By: FIRE Press Release; Greg Gullberg Email
By: FIRE Press Release; Greg Gullberg Email

- Valdosta, Ga. - Feb. 09, 2012 -

The Eleventh Circuit Court rules against former Valdosta State University president Ronald Zaccari.

In a unanimous decision Tuesday, he was found liable for violating a student's constitutional rights. T. Hayden Barnes was expelled from VSU in 2007 for protesting Zaccari's plan to use $30 Million of student fees to fund two new parking garages.

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Valdosta, GA - 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. Barnes had come to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"This crucial victory makes clear that no university president is above the law," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Hayden's long nightmare is over and justice has been served. Ronald Zaccari will be held personally accountable for his flagrant disregard of Hayden's constitutional rights."

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In response, Zaccari personally ordered that Barnes be "administratively withdrawn" from campus.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.com 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.

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 has aided Barnes since learning of his case in October 2007. Since that time, FIRE wrote 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. Then, under further pressure from FIRE, current VSU President Patrick J. Schloss dismantled VSU's unconstitutional free speech zone in September 2008.

"FIRE welcomes the court's ruling, which recognizes and affirms what we have been saying since 2007: Ronald Zaccari violated Hayden Barnes' constitutional rights," said Will Creeley, FIRE's Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. "FIRE is very pleased to thank Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Washington, D.C., and Cary Wiggins of The Wiggins Law Group in Atlanta for securing justice for Hayden."

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.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

WCTV did attempt to reach VSU for comment. The University says they will not comment this is still an ongoing matter in court.


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