Thursday, February 21, 2013
A federal jury holds a former public-university president liable for unfairly expelling a student critic of his policies
In a case that may help end the decades-long scandal of speech codes on college campuses, a federal jury in Georgia this month held the former president of a public university personally liable for violating the basic rights of one of his students.
In 2007, Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari expelled student Hayden Barnes after Mr. Barnes protested Mr. Zaccari's plan to construct two new parking garages on campus.
Mr. Barnes believed that the university should pursue more environmentally friendly alternatives, and he let the campus community know his opinion through a determined yet civil campaign, including posting flyers around campus, writing to the campus newspaper, and contacting fellow students and other members of the university community. One flyer pointed out that the estimated $30 million cost of the garages could provide 2,940 full scholarships for students at the school.
Mr. Zaccari apparently began looking for a reason to expel this meddlesome student. He settled upon a collage that Mr. Barnes had posted on Facebook FB +2.15% that referred to the construction project as a "memorial" parking garage, a joke on the president's belief that the garage would be part of his legacy.
Mr. Zaccari, alleging that the use of the word "memorial" constituted a threat on his life, threw Mr. Barnes out of school, despite objections by his own staff and statements from multiple psychologists that the student (a believer in nonviolence and a decorated emergency medical technician) wasn't a threat to anyone.
Mr. Barnes filed suit in 2008, enlisting the help of First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere. This month a federal jury found against Mr. Zaccari and awarded $50,000 in compensatory damages to Mr. Barnes. Mr. Zaccari (who announced his retirement in the fall of 2007) may also be held liable for Mr. Barnes's legal fees.
Presidents of public universities would normally be protected from such a decision by "qualified immunity," a legal principle that shields state employees from personal liability for constitutional violations while carrying out their job duties. However, this immunity can be pierced when a state official is found to have abused his legal authority and done something he either knew or should have known violated clearly established constitutional rights. Here, Mr. Zaccari ignored Mr. Barnes's constitutional right to due process.
It would be nice to think Mr Zaccari is humiliated by this but he is probably too pumped up with self-righteousness for that.