SPLC Supports Georgia Student Activist in Legal Challenge to College Expulsion


Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”) filed afriend-of-the-court brief Monday urging the Atlanta-based Eleventh CircuitU.S. Court of Appeals to affirm a favorable ruling finding that Valdosta StateUniversity violated the rights of a student environmental activist by expellinghim for campaigning against a campus parking garage.

The SPLC’s brief supports the legal claims of Thomas HaydenBarnes, a student environmental activist who was kicked out of Valdosta State,a public university in South Georgia, in May 2007.

Then-Valdosta State President Ronald Zaccari arranged forBarnes to be “administratively withdrawn” with no advance notice or opportunityto contest his removal – which Barnes learned about when the college shoved aletter under the door of his dorm room. Barnes had been waging a campaign todefeat a proposed parking garage that Zaccari championed. Zaccari was angeredby Barnes’ protests and sought to portray Barnes as dangerously unstable – eventhough experts advised Zaccari that Barnes posed no threat and had done nothingto warrant expulsion. Barnes was reinstated after an appeal to the state boardof regents, which took months to resolve and forced him to miss a semester ofcollege.

“What Hayden Barnes was doing was not classicallyjournalistic, but the standard that the Eleventh Circuit sets in his case willimpact how well college journalists are protected against retaliation throughdisciplinary channels,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director ofthe SPLC, who authored the brief with SPLC attorneys Laura Napoli, AdamSchulman and Adam Goldstein. “We have too often seen colleges use the threat ofstudent conduct charges to intimidate journalists, and it is vital that thecourt send a strong message that students cannot be railroaded out of collegein kangaroo-court proceedings just because of what they write.”

On Sept. 3, 2010, U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell of theNorthern District of Georgia ruled not only that Zaccari had violated Barnes’right to a due process hearing, but that the law so clearly favored Barnes thatZaccari can be held personally liable for financial damages. Judge Pannell also ruled that theuniversity violated Barnes’ contractual rights by reneging on promises made ina student handbook guaranteeing students a fair opportunity to be heard beforediscipline is imposed. The college and Zaccari are appealing those rulings.

“The strong protection that accompanies even hurtful andoffensive speech addressing matters of public concern … would be undermined ifgovernment actors were empowered to censor indirectly through summarydisciplinary proceedings in which they serve as accuser, prosecutor, judge,jury and executioner,” the SPLC wrote in its brief. “The president of a publicuniversity is one of state government’s most powerful actors, wielding enormousinfluence over the lives of those attending the institution. It is the rarestudent who has the fortitude to challenge that authority and to hold hisuniversity administration accountable for its policy decisions. Due process,and the contractual force of university policies, are partial equalizers ofthis power differential. These protections make it possible for students tosafely perform their essential oversight functions as ‘citizens’ of the campuscommunity, just as they soon will be doing in their off-campus lives.”

The case is Barnes v.Zaccari, Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Case No. 10-14622. The casewill be assigned to a three-judge panel; no hearing date has been set, and afinal decision typically takes at least half a year. Barnes is represented bythe powerhouse media-law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, and its partner,Robert Corn-Revere, and by Cary Stephen Wiggins of Atlanta-based CookYoungelson & Wiggins.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted toeducating high school and college journalists about the rights andresponsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the studentnews media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Centerprovides free information and educational materials for student journalists andtheir teachers on a wide variety of legal topics.

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