$900,000 settlement reached between former Valdosta State University student and ex-university president

GEORGIA — Eight years after being expelled from Valdosta State University without a hearing, a former student has won a $900,000 settlement in a case that supporters have called one of the worst abuses of student rights in recent history.

The case, brought by former student Hayden Barnes, inhabited multiple courts over an eight-year adjudication period, finding itself in the Eleventh Circuit Court on appeal twice.

Through the years, the legal team representing Barnes kept track of time by the number of babies born to the attorneys, said Robert Corn-Revere, an attorney with the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine that represented Barnes pro bono. There were at least five, he said.

In January 2008, Barnes filed a free-speech and due-process-rights violation lawsuit against Ronald Zaccari, the then-president of Valdosta State, along with the Board of Regents of the University of Georgia system and multiple other administrators, said Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE had connected Barnes to Davis Wright Tremaine.

Barnes was “administratively withdrawn” by Zaccari in May 2007 in response to Barnes’ environmental activism against the university’s plan to build two new parking garages on campus. Barnes posted a collage on his personal Facebook page criticizing the plan. He had also written a letter to the editor of the school newspaper, The Spectator, and distributed flyers around campus.

Even after Barnes complied with the university’s conditions for reinstatement — including submitting to psychological examination — no reinstatement was forthcoming, said Creeley.

“Hayden had been expelled on the basis of protected speech in violation of Valdosta State’s own procedures for expulsion,” Creeley said. “And then, to add insult to injury, Hayden’s told that if he meets certain conditions, he might have the option to be readmitted. That’s ridiculous.”

Barnes transferred to Kennesaw State University.

Corn-Revere said he was “aghast” at the extent of the violation of Barnes’ rights when he agreed to take on the case.

The First Amendment and due process violations were made all the more severe by the university’s use of Barnes’ issues with anxiety to portray him as a dangerous person, Corn-Revere said.

“They tried to paint him as dangerous and then used that as the pretextual basis for expelling him,” he said.

The claims against Valdosta State, along with the Board of Regents, were dismissed in 2012, according to a statement released by the university’s interim president, Cecil P. Staton.

“The Georgia Department of Administrative Services made the decision to settle this case and is funding the settlement amount in its entirety,” the statement said. “We are pleased this matter has been finally closed.”

In 2010, the trial court judge ruled that Zaccari could potentially be personally liable for the violation of Barnes’ due process rights. Zaccari appealed that ruling to the Eleventh Circuit Court, which upheld the trial court’s ruling.

A federal jury awarded Barnes $50,000 for the violation of his due process rights in 2013, said Creeley. The $900,000 settlement includes the $50,000 award.

Barnes then appealed U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr.’s 2010 decision on his First Amendment claim to the Eleventh Circuit alleging that the claim had been improperly dismissed. This January, the court agreed, and ordered the case back to district court for adjudication, Creeley said.

At that point, settlement talks began, resulting in the $900,000 final settlement.

“I think, probably, the most important takeaway from that kind of complicated procedural history is that Hayden has repeatedly won,” Creeley said. “The case has been favorably adjudicated for Hayden at pretty much every step of the process.”

Corn-Revere said that the transience of the student body may contribute to a lack of respect for student rights.

“I think it’s important to reinforce the idea…that [just] because students come and go, that doesn’t mean rights don’t have to be respected in the meantime,” he said.

He said the case will provide a powerful warning to would-be administrative censors.

“This case should serve as a kind of ghost story to would-be campus censors everywhere,” Creeley said. “The fact that we now have a $900,000 settlement means that administrators nationwide will be able to think of 900,000 reasons why they shouldn’t censor students…[and] why they should respect student rights.”

Many other organizations, including the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, supported Barnes.

“I think this is easily one of the worst abuses that FIRE as an organization has ever seen,” said Creeley.

Even so, Creeley said, FIRE still sees many flagrant violations of student and faculty rights on a regular basis, many of whom don’t fight back as Barnes did.

“For every Hayden Barnes, there may be 20 cases where the student feels unable to fight back,” he said. “So the great thing about Hayden’s victory is that it sends a message, not just to administrators, but hopefully to students — if you have your rights violated, you can fight back and win.”

Contact staff writer Trisha LeBoeuf by email or at 202-974-6317.

Correction (7/30/15): A previous version of this article misspelled Judge Pannell’s last name. The article has been updated to reflect this.