After 8 Years, Valdosta State Student Wins Free Speech Settlement


In 2007, a student at a southern Georgia university was expelled from his college for speech that was protected. This month, the case, Barnes v. Zaccari, finally ended with a $900,000 settlement.

Valdosta State University (VSU) expelled Hayden Barnes after he expressed his opinion about a campus parking garage via a Facebook post. The now-retired president of the university, Ronald Zaccari, called it a “threatening document” and deemed Barnes a “clear and present danger.”

The Facebook post was a collage of pictures of the president, the parking garage, and environmentally themed photographs, with a caption reading “S.A.V.E. – Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” Barnes’ jab at Zaccari’s desire to erect the parking lot for his legacy.

According to its website, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote twice to the University System of Georgia in October of 2007 to reverse the expulsion and clear Barnes’ record. When the Board of Regents ignored their pleas, Barnes decided to sue.

Strangely, Barnes has won almost every level of the litigation, but Zaccari repeatedly avoided accountability. For example, a judge found that Barnes’ due process rights had been severely violated, but also decided that since Zaccari acted alone there was no “conspiracy” to violate the First Amendment.

However, Zaccari’s attorneys felt that he would lose the final court battle, so VSU agreed to pay Barnes $900,000.

Robert Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine, who represented Barnes, said:

However long these cases may take, we are committed tomaking sure justice is done in the end. University officials must understand that they are not free to ignore students’ constitutional rights.

The 11th circuit of the US Court of Appeals in 2012 felt that Zaccari could not take advantage of “qualified immunity” and was therefore liable for violating Barnes’ rights, paving the way for more serious consequences in similar cases. Qualified immunity means that public officials who abuse their power and violate the rights of citizens can still be held personally accountable, writes FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff at the Huffington Post. According to case evidence, Zaccari was told repeatedly that his actions in regards to Barnes were unconstitutional.

Lukianioff, who leads FIRE, has recommended policies that hold administrators accountable for violating the rights of students. In an article for Ricochet, Lukianoff suggests that alumni and trustees should demand that insurance policies not cover these violations. He also encourages more students to come forward to hold colleges and administrators accountable for free speech violations.

Bob Kellogg of One News Now quoted Robert Shibley of FIRE:

It’s important to send a message to college administrators that this is actually on them when they violate the constitution. They can’t continue to expect the public to pay for their mistakes.

According to the FIRE website, the organization is:

… a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities.