DWT helped score a major victory for free speech on campus in February, as a federal jury found former university president Ronald M. Zaccari personally liable for violating the due process rights of Hayden Barnes, a student he expelled.
DWT represented the Valdosta State University student, who, in the spring of 2007, peacefully protested the university’s plan to construct a new, $30 million parking deck. In response to Barnes’ activism, Zaccari personally ordered that he be “administratively withdrawn” from the institution.
The verdict in February followed five years of litigation, during which DWT partner Robert Corn-Revere worked with the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Cary Wiggins of The Wiggins Law Group in Atlanta. Lisa Zycherman and Erin Nedenia Reid, associates in our D.C. office, participated in the trial, and former associates Chris Fedeli and Brigham Bowen worked on earlier stages of the case.
Barnes objected to the new garage on environmental grounds, and his protest activities included posting flyers, writing a letter to the editor of the VSU student newspaper, and writing to Zaccari himself to request an exemption from the mandatory student fee designated for funding construction. Barnes also created a collage on his personal Facebook page that combined photos of a garage structure and Zaccari and used the acronym for an on-campus student group (Students Against Violating the Environment) in a caption that read “S.A.V.E. Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage”.
In a letter to Barnes, Zaccari called that Facebook post “a threatening document” and told Barnes “you are considered to present a clear and present danger to this campus.” By means of the letter, and without further notice or a hearing, Barnes was expelled.
That fall, Barnes sought help from FIRE. A few months later, with Corn-Revere’s help, a complaint was filed against Zaccari and other school administrators in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Not long after, the VSU Board of Regents reversed the expulsion of Barnes, who had since enrolled at another university.
The district court found that Zaccari had violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process. The court also ruled that because Zaccari had ignored “clearly established” law in his treatment of Barnes he could not avail himself of the “qualified immunity” defense otherwise open to state officials and could be found personally liable for damages. An appeals court ruling upheld the denial of qualified immunity to Zaccari, finding that Barnes “had a clearly established constitutional right to notice and a hearing before being removed from VSU.”
A trial on Barnes’ breach-of-contract claim against Zaccari took place in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Valdosta Division, earlier this year and ended with a verdict in Barnes’ favor and the $50,000 judgment. A separate breach of contract claim against the Board of Regents remains pending in state court.