Eight Years After Bogus Expulsion Over Supposed ‘Threat,’ Former Student Obtains $900k Settlement From University

It’s taken former Valdosta State University (VSU) student Hayden Barnes most of a decade and two trips to the 11th Circuit Appeals Court, but his efforts to hold the school accountable for its abusive behavior have finally paid off.

Today, more than eight years after his unjust expulsion, student Hayden Barnes’ federal civil rights lawsuit against Georgia’s Valdosta State University (VSU) and former VSU president Ronald Zaccari concluded with the announcement of a $900,000 settlement…

“After eight years, and one of the worst abuses of student rights FIRE has ever seen, Hayden Barnes has finally received justice,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “Thanks to Hayden’s courageous stand, would-be censors at public universities nationwide have 900,000 new reasons to respect the free speech and due process rights of their students.”

We’ve covered multiple cases of universities overstepping their bounds when it comes to free speech, but VSU’s case is particularly stupid. VSU president Ronald Zaccari didn’t care for Barnes’ peaceful protest of the school’s 2007 plan to use $30 million in new student fees to erect two parking garages. Barnes posted fliers and sent emails to the student body and staff stating his objections to the plan. He also crafted a sarcastic photo collage titled “S.A.V.E. – Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage” and posted it to his Facebook page.

Soon after that, the school — led by Pres. Zaccari — expelled Barnes, claiming his Facebook collage was evidence he posed a “clear and present danger” to the university.

As a result of recent activities directed towards me by you, included but not limited to the attached threatening document, you are considered to present a clear and present danger to this campus. Therefore, pursuant to Board of Regents’ policy 1902, you are hereby notified that you have been administratively withdrawn from Valdosta State University effective May 7, 2007.

The letter also informed Barnes that the only way he would be readmitted to VSU would be if he underwent a psychiatric evaluation and submitted to ongoing mental health therapy.

Attached to the letter was a screenshot of Barnes’ “threatening document” (the Facebook post), which obviously contains nothing approaching a threat. Presumably, Zaccari read the word “memorial” and conveniently decided this troublesome critic wanted him dead, rather than considering it might be a light slam referencing Zaccari’s concern about his VSU “legacy.”

Well, Zaccari has managed to secure his legacy… as well as a bill for damages he’s personally responsible for paying.

Zaccari […] used this bogus rationale to expel Barnes without a hearing. Barnes sued Zaccari and other VSU administrators in 2008, and in 2013 a federal district court found that Zaccari had violated Barnes’s due process rights. Barnes was awarded $50,000 in damages for which the court determined that Zaccari was personally liable, sending a message to public college administrators that there can be real, personal costs for abuses.

Despite this win, the university continued to fight against Barnes’ claims, sending it back to the 11th Circuit Course twice. All it managed to do was increase the amount of legal fees it could potentially be held liable for. With a loss all but assured, the school finally fell on its $900,000 sword on July 23, 2015.

It’s not that VSU doesn’t care about its students’ rights or doesn’t provide them with avenues of recourse. It’s that in this case the school, led by Zaccari, did everything it could to prevent Barnes from availing himself of these options. The most recent decision by the 11th Circuit Court contains a detailed recounting of the events leading to the long-running lawsuit that shows Zaccari actively pushing for a form of expulsion (“administrative withdrawal”) that would allow the school to bypass Barnes and his right to a more adversarial process.

It was this abuse of due process — and Zaccari’s guiding hand — that led to him being held responsible for $50,000 in damages.

The court ruled that because Zaccari ignored Barnes’ “clearly established constitutional right to notice and a hearing before being removed from VSU,” Zaccari could not shield himself with the defense of “qualified immunity.” In other words, Zaccari’s abuse of power was so egregious that the Eleventh Circuit found he could be held personally liable for his wrongdoing.

$900,000 may seem like a decent payout, but it has to be spread over eight years of litigation. At best, this possibly puts Barnes at break-even. It will likely come with stipulations stating that it is not an admission of wrongdoing by VSU administration. It may prompt the university to more closely inspect its expulsion policies and address due process concerns in the future, but the school has issued no statement on its participation in the lawsuit nor its official position on the outcome.

The settlement is far more useful as a warning to other schools and administrators who may be considering ditching due process niceties in their haste to expel/shut up students that don’t agree with their positions or activities. Even more effective than the $900,000 handed over to Barnes by the school is the $50,000 the school’s president is personally on the hook for. There are few things more powerful than the direct targeting of an abusive individual’s wallet, especially when that person had likely assumed his position would insulate him from being held accountable for his actions.

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