Appeals court reinstates claim former Valdosta State U. president retaliated against student over Facebook post

GEORGIA — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reinstated on Monday a former Valdosta State University student’s claim that he was expelled in 2007 in retaliation for a Facebook post that criticized the institution’s president.

According to Hayden Barnes’ First Amendment claim, he was expelled from VSU with no warning or chance to contest the decision after he protested the impact the construction of a new parking garage had on the environment. Former VSU President Ronald Zaccari claimed that he felt personally threatened when Barnes posted to Facebook a collage that read “Ronald Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage.”

“We’re very pleased that the Eleventh Circuit has frankly vindicated Hayden’s claims,” said attorney Robert Corn-Revere of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Davis Wright Tremaine, who has represented Barnes since he sued Zaccari in 2008. “It ruled in our favor in all of the principal claims of the appeal.”

A representative from Valdosta State University could not be reached for comment.

While Barnes won $50,000 in compensatory damages on the grounds of due process claims in 2013, a 2010 opinion of the district court had dismissed Barnes’ claim of First Amendment retaliation.

The district court read Barnes’ lawsuit as stating only a claim of “conspiracy” to violate the First Amendment, which didn’t apply because there was no proof Zaccari conspired with anyone. But the appeals court, in a 3-0 opinion, said the district judge misread Barnes’ claims and that Zaccari was clearly on notice he faced a claim of individually violating Barnes’ First Amendment rights.

Corn-Revere said that by reinstating the First Amendment retaliation claim, the Eleventh Circuit is restoring “the heart” of Barnes’ challenge to his “wrongful dismissal from Valdosta State University.”

“It’s a basic First Amendment rule that a government official does not get to penalize someone for the expression of an opinion that official simply doesn’t like,” he said. “This is a classic case of a government official punishing someone for their political views.”

Moreover, the Monday’s ruling holds VSU administrators liable for potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees accrued during the case. Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he hopes this liability will create incentives for college administrators to abide by the law.

“Administrators aren’t likely to continue to get away with totally disregarding the rights of their students,” he said. “Particularly in this case with the former president Zaccari being held personally liable for his actions, I think that sends an important signal to college administrators that there are real costs when they ignore their duties under the Constitution.”

Both FIRE and the Student Press Law Center filed an amicus brief in 2013 in coordination with a broad coalition of free-speech organizations, arguing the court “must overturn the district court’s strained reading of Barnes’ retaliation claim to reestablish the primacy of the First Amendment on campus — because sadly, Hayden Barnes’ case is no anomaly.”

Corn-Revere said he hopes both parties can agree on a settlement.

“This case has been going on for a long time,” he said. “It would seem that most of the work of clarifying what the law is has been done.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Elaina Koros by email or at (202) 974-6317.