An environmental activist expelled from Georgia’s Valdosta State University (VSU) has won a $50,000 award in a lawsuit against the university president who kicked him out of school in 2007. In a dramatic rebuke to President Ronald Zaccari, the federal jury that heard the case found Zaccari personally liable for violating Hayden Barnes’ due process rights.
The case emerged from a dispute over a planned parking structure that Barnes considered a waste of money and an environmental blight on the campus. At least three times Zaccari reached out to Barnes to complain about his organizing against the garage — which included flyering about other uses to which the money could be put and calling members of the VSU board of regents to urge them to reject the proposal — and when Barnes posted a collage on Facebook that called it the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” Zaccari claimed it was a threat to his safety and expelled him without a hearing.
Zaccari’s conclusion that Barnes posed a threat of violence was contradicted by campus mental health officials and Barnes’ own therapist, and his decision to expel Barnes without due process violated university policy. The University of Georgia System’s board of regents reversed the expulsion the following year, and Zaccari took an early retirement from the university as the scandal around his actions grew.
When college administrators violate students’ rights they are generally protected from personal liability by a legal principle known as qualified immunity. Under qualified immunity, a government employee who acts wrongfully may only be sued as an individual if his or her behavior violates “clearly established law” of which a reasonable person would have been aware.
In this case, however, a federal jury found Friday that Zaccari’s actions were so egregious that he could be held personally responsible for them, and that his position as a government employee did not shield him from individual liability. Zaccari was told to pay Barnes damages of $50,000 plus attorneys’ fees, which will be assessed at a later date.
A separate lawsuit against the VSU board of regents is currently pending.
Barnes was represented in his lawsuit by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Though I’ve clashed with FIRE on some issues in the past, they got this one exactly right and won a very important victory.
College and university administrators need to know that if they wantonly violate students’ rights they run the risk not only of damaging the institutions they serve but also of facing personal legal consequences.
As a result of Friday’s decision, such administrators have new reason to tread carefully.