A federal jury today found former Valdosta State University (VSU) President Ronald M. Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 for violating the due process rights of former student Hayden Barnes in the case of Barnes v. Zaccari. In May 2007, Zaccari expelled Barnes for peacefully protesting Zaccari's plan to construct two parking garages on campus, calling a collage posted by Barnes on his personal Facebook page a "threatening document" and labeling Barnes a "clear and present danger" to VSU. Barnes first came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help in October 2007.
"College administrators have been blatantly and willfully violating student rights for decades, but they have far too often dodged personal responsibility. Not so today," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "We hope this serves as a much-needed wake up call to college administrators that it's time to start paying close attention to the basic rights of their students."
"After five years, I finally feel vindicated. This is a victory for me but it's also a victory for students everywhere," said Barnes. "I hope that other college administrators take heed and see that violating students' rights can be costly and that they will be held accountable. I thank my legal team and FIRE for making this victory possible and my friends and family for standing by me through this difficult fight."
Barnes' ordeal began in the spring of 2007, when he protested Zaccari's plan to construct two new parking garages on campus at a cost of $30 million. By posting flyers and sending emails to Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, 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In response to Barnes' activism, Zaccari personally ordered that he be "administratively withdrawn" from VSU in May of 2007, ignoring the concerns raised by members of his administration. Zaccari absurdly 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." Given no notice or opportunity to defend himself, Barnes came to FIRE for help in October 2007.
Today's verdict follows five years of litigation, both at the trial and appellate levels.
All too often university administrators, particularly at the uppermost levels, act as if they were tin pot dictators because most times there is no one able or willing to hold them accountable for their misdeeds. Cases like this can serve an important reminder that state-run colleges and universities are not personal fiefdoms to be run any way they damn well please, nor are students and faculty second-class peasants without Constitutional rights.
Who knows, maybe they will learn the lesson.
(Okay, I realize they will not but a man can dream, can't he?)