Ga. college student expelled after criticizing president's plan files suit

GEORGIA — A student who was expelled after repeatedlycriticizing a plan championed by the university president for a new parkinggarage filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday*, alleging that school officials violatedhis rights by expelling him on a trumped-up charge that he was a danger to thecampus.

T. Hayden Barnes, then a Valdosta State University sophomore, began hiscampaign against the parking garage plan in response to a March article in theValdosta State student newspaper, The Spectator. Barnes, an environmentalactivist, posted fliers around campus advocating alternatives. He also sente-mails to fellow students and university officials, including President RonaldZaccari, and posted some responses on his Facebook page.

According to the lawsuit, Barnes took down the fliers and Facebook postingsin late March, after learning from classmates in a campus environmentalorganization that Zaccari was upset about the posts. But he continued hisactivism in April. He had a letter to the editor published in TheSpectator, continued lobbying University System of Georgia regents and, in aletter to Zaccari, requested an exemption from having to pay the portion of hisstudent fees that would fund the new parking garage.

He also posted an editorial-cartoon-style collage on his Facebook page. Thecollage included a photo of Zaccari and a parking garage, slogans such as “moresmog” and a title labeling the garage the “S.A.V.E.-Zaccari Memorial ParkingDeck” — referring to S.A.V.E., the campus environmental group, and Barnes’belief that Zaccari considered construction of the parking garage a major partof his legacy.

Barnes found a letter in his dorm room May 7 informing him that he had been”administratively withdrawn” because he posed a “clear and present danger” tothe campus — even though, according to the lawsuit, both a schoolcounselor and Barnes’ private psychiatrist had told university officials thatthey did not believe Barnes had shown any violent tendencies. The letter fromZaccari specifically cited the Facebook collage as a “threatening document.”

Barnes appealed his expulsion to the Board of Regents. He also contactedthe Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which sent letters toValdosta State protesting Barnes’ expulsion and issued press releases about thecase — with supporting documents — on its Web site.

After Barnes’ hearing before the Office of State Administrative Hearingswas postponed several times, Barnes filed suit in U.S. District Court for theNorthern District of Georgia Jan. 9. The suit alleges that Valdosta State, theBoard of Regents, Zaccari and other school officials violated Barnes’ FirstAmendment rights. The suit also claims Barnes’ expulsion violated the school’sown disciplinary procedures and Barnes’ due process rights, and that the schoolviolated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by using Barnes’mental-health status — he received treatment for anxiety and depression– as a pretext to label him a threat and expel him.

Barnes’s suit asks for relief including unspecified money damages,attorneys’ fees and a declaration that Valdosta State actedillegally.

Valdosta State, through spokeswoman Thressea H. Boyd, said Zaccariand the school would not comment on the pending lawsuit. However, in itssubmission to the Office of State Administrative Hearings, the Board of Regentspointed to several other postings Barnes made as evidence of the threat heposed. For example, he posted a status message on Facebook that he was “cleaningout and rearranging his room and thus, his mind, or so he hopes.” He alsoposted a link to an article about the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech, and one page included a banner ad for Project Spotlight, a Web-based film submission contest. Thecontest’s tagline was: “Shoot it. Upload it. Get famous. Project Spotlight issearching for the next big thing. Are you it?”

“President Zaccari considered Petitioner’s actions, including thestatement on the Facebook website, to be a specific threat to his safety and ageneral threat to the safety of the campus,” the Board of Regents wrote.

In response, Barnes’ suit calls the Project Spotlight ad “completelyunrelated” and the university’s interpretation of the news article as evidence of a threat an ironicmisreading.

“In fact, the author of the article made the opposite point — thatbecause of the Virginia Tech tragedy, some people would be branded as dangerouswhen they were not,” the suit says.

Robert Corn-Revere, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing Barnes, saidthat he had reviewed the documents posted by FIRE, along with other messagesBarnes sent that have not been released, and that none of the messages supportZaccari’s rationale for expelling Barnes.

“There’s no conceivable argument that’s plausible that would support theallegations that there was any kind of threat,” Corn-Revere said. He said Barneshimself would not be speaking publicly at this stage of the litigation.

Barnes is now enrolled at Kennesaw State University, near Atlanta, butCorn-Revere said Barnes would like to return to Valdosta State if his suit issuccessful — particularly given that Zaccari announced in November that hewould be retiring at the end of the school year.

CORRECTION, Jan. 11; The original version of this article misstated the day on which Barnes’ lawsuit was filed. The SPLC regrets the error. Return to story.