Parking garage protester (and campus free speech) prevails in the ‘Peach State’

A student expelled from a Georgia university for challenging the then-university president’s decision to spend $30 million of student fee money to build two campus parking garages has won his lawsuit against the school.

On Friday, a federal district court judge in Georgia found that former Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari acted illegally in 2007 when he ordered former VSU student T. Hayden Barnes “administratively withdrawn” from the school without notice and without a hearing. 

Barnes had posted flyers around VSU’s campus denouncing the planned parking garages, which he said provided little incentive for students to rely less on their cars, and proposing alternatives that he claimed were more environmentally friendly. He also sent e-mails to various campus and student government officials, submitted a letter to the editor of the Spectator, VSU’s student paper and petitioned  Zaccari asking for an exemption to that portion of his mandatory student fee that was to be used for construction of the garages.

After Barnes’ posted a collageon his Facebook page that included a photo of Zaccari, a parking garage, a bulldozer and the caption “”S.A.V.E. — Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” Zaccari ordered Barnes expelled, claiming that he  presented a “clear and present danger” to both the VSU campus and Zaccari himself.

With support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere, Barnes filed suit and was eventually successful in having his expulsion overturned and seeing Zaccari retire as VSU’s president several months early.

Barnes’ legal victory is a big win for student free speech for a number of reasons.

First, the judge found that Zaccari violated Barnes’ constitutional “due process” rights by failing to reasonably notify him of the charges and not providing him with the opportunity to defend himself at a hearing prior to kicking him out of school.

The judge also pointed to disciplinary policies and procedures published in VSU’s student handbook. Such policies, the judge found, constituted an enforceable contract between VSU and its students.

That finding adds to a growing body of law that makes clear promises made by schools in handbooks, school charters, “Student Rights and Responsibility” documents and other university statements can provide students with legal protections that extend beyond those provided by more traditional law. While most cases have so far involved promises made to students about the fairness of campus disciplinary systems, the Student Press Law Center has long argued that schools should also be held legally accountable for violating their own student media policies and other provisions promising to protect student speech.

Importantly, such breach-of-contract claims have been successful not only at public schools, but also at private institutions, where students are unable to pursue constitutionally based due process claims.

Finally, the judge dismissed Zaccari’s claim that, as a public university president, he should be entitled to “qualified immunity.”  Claims of qualified immunity have become significant hurdles in a number of recent student speech cases, with judges at times giving school officials extraordinary leeway in pushing the legal limits. In his ruling, the judge found that Zaccari had violated “clearly established law” in ignoring the warning of university counsel that expelling Barnes without proper notice and a hearing was illegal. In dismissing the qualified immunity claim, the court held that Zaccari was personally liable for monetary damages awarded Barnes.

Barnes, who is now a law student in Maryland, issued a statement Saturday saying that he hoped the decision would serve as “another reminder to college and university administrators around the country that they are not immune from the Constitution.”

There is no word yet about whether the university or Zaccari plan to appeal the decision.