Victory for Free Speech at Valdosta State University

January 17, 2008

ATLANTA, January 17, 2008—In a meeting yesterday, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia reversed a ruling against Valdosta State University (VSU) student T. Hayden Barnes, who was expelled in May 2007 after using Facebook.com and other methods to publicly protest the school’s decision to construct two new parking garages on campus. Barnes—who filed a federal lawsuit last week against VSU alleging constitutional violations—was informed by his lawyer, noted First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere, that the Board has reversed his expulsion.

“FIRE commends the Board of Regents for beginning to right the horrendous wrong committed against Hayden Barnes simply for exercising his First Amendment rights at a public university,” FIRE Senior Program Officer William Creeley said. “But the case should never have come this far. Barnes’s lawsuit will ensure that VSU answers for its unconstitutional actions in court.”

Barnes’s struggles began last spring, when he peacefully protested VSU President Ronald Zaccari’s plan to spend $30 million of student fees 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 sought to detail his concerns about the parking structures and propose environmentally friendly options.

In response, Zaccari personally ordered that Barnes be “administratively withdrawn” from campus, claiming that Barnes presented a “clear and present danger” to both Zaccari and the VSU campus. To justify Barnes’s expulsion, Zaccari relied heavily on 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,” a sarcastic reference to concerns Barnes says Zaccari had expressed in a meeting about his “legacy” as president of VSU.

Over the last few months, 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. When VSU continued to refuse to honor Barnes’s constitutional rights, Barnes filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that Zaccari wrongfully violated his right to freedom of speech. The suit emphasizes Zaccari’s irrational insistence that Barnes represented a threat and a “clear and present danger,” despite findings to the contrary by mental health professionals. Barnes is asking the court for damages, including punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

Yesterday, the Board of Regents voted to reverse Zaccari’s expulsion of Barnes, thus preventing the matter from being adjudicated by Georgia’s Office of State Administrative Hearings. Barnes’s lawsuit against the university will continue.

VSU’s brazen disregard for Barnes’s rights has earned it a place on FIRE’s Red Alert List. The school also maintains a blatantly unconstitutional free speech zone, which FIRE is fighting to dismantle. VSU has remained silent on the free speech zone thus far.

“Although serious concerns remain about the state of free speech on VSU’s campus, we are glad that Hayden may continue his academic career without fear of punishment for engaging in a peaceful, legal protest,” Creeley said. “We also hope VSU will reconsider its free speech zone policy, which not only limits free speech to a small section of campus, but also restricts student speech there to a mere two hours per day. FIRE will keep VSU on our Red Alert List until we can report that the school is truly fulfilling its role as a public university in America, where free speech should be revered and encouraged.”

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 at Valdosta State University and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws.

CONTACT:
William Creeley, Senior Program Officer, FIRE: 215-717-3473; will@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws
Ronald Zaccari, President, Valdosta State University: 229-333-5952; rzaccari@valdosta.edu
Erroll B. Davis, Jr., Chancellor, University System of Georgia: 404-656-2202; chancellor@usg.edu
Robert Corn-Revere, Partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP: 202-973-4225; bobcornrevere@dwt.com

Schools: Valdosta State University Cases: Valdosta State University: Student Expelled for Peacefully Protesting Parking Garages