College chief personally liable for abusing student's rights
September 10, 2010
by Bob Unruh
A federal court judge in Georgia has ruled a former college president is financially liable for his expulsion of a student.
U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell Jr. court ruled in the case of Valdosta State student Thomas Hayden Barnes, who was expelled in 2007 after he peacefully protested plans by then-President Ronald Zaccari to use $30 million in student activity fees to build a parking garage.
The case has been pursued by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which monitors educational institutions for violations of civil rights.
Barnes posted flyers around the Georgia campus expressing his concerns over the environmental impact. He e-mailed Valdosta State officials, posted information on a social networking website and contacted the school's board of regents.
In response, Zaccarri ordered an assistant to investigate who was behind the opposition to his construction plans and demanded Barnes come into his office – alone – for a meeting. There, Zaccari demanded to know "who did [Barnes] think [he] was?" and told him his criticism had made his life hard. Zaccari "could not forgive [Barnes]," according to the judge's ruling.
Shortly later, Zaccari ordered his staff to investigate Barnes' academic records, medical history (he reported experiencing panic disorder), his religion and his registration, according to court documents.
Subsequently, according to the judge, Zaccari met with various school officials, including police, to complain about Barnes. A resulting staff investigation of Barnes concluded that officials should not "worry about whether Barnes was a danger to anyone."
Zaccari then called another meeting of staff members and reported he felt "threatened" by Barnes' advocacy against his parking garage plan.
Another series of meetings followed at which Zaccari repeatedly was told there were no grounds for worry and that if there was any action taken, the student deserved "due process," including being told what rules he allegedly violated.
Instead, Zaccari proposed using an "administrative withdrawal" procedure because other procedures "would take time and require the president to produce evidence to support his decision."
Days later, the notice was delivered to Barnes that he had been "administratively withdrawn" from the school.
After Barnes filed the lawsuit, the board of regents "without comment" reversed his "withdrawal."
While the school later was dismissed from the most of the allegations, the judge said the issues of free speech violations, due process, breach of contract and others had to be addressed.
Regarding Zaccari, the judge wrote, "The court has … concluded … that Barnes, as a VSU student, was entitled to notice and a hearing. The undisputed facts in this case show that prior to Zaccari's withdrawal decision, Barnes did not (a) receive any notice of the allegations and charges against him or (b) have an opportunity to respond."
He continued, "Zaccari was the sole decision-maker in the withdrawl decision and, therefore, caused Barnes to be deprived of his rights to notice and a hearing or opportunity to respond."
And qualified immunity doesn't apply, because Zaccari's legal counsel clearly had advised against his actions, expressing concern over the legal position the decision would result for the college, the court ruled.
"The undisputed facts show that Zaccari ignored the lawyers' warnings that withdrawing Barnes would require due process in executing his administrative withdrawal of Barnes," the judge found.
"Zaccari caused Barnes to be deprived of his rights … accordingly, the court grants Barnes' motion for summary judgment," he ruled. "The only remaining issue in this case is damages."
FIRE staffers told WND that both sides have been told by the judge to submit arguments regarding the amount of damages, which is expected to be decided in the next few weeks.
Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, told WND that the opinion should offer a warning to college and university administrators that they, too, are subject to the law.
"When they realize it's their wallets on the line, not the state taxpayers' funds, they will realize that First Amendment, due process rights [are important] and they are actively breaking the law," he said.
A WND request to the college for comment did not generate a response. And since Zaccari has been replaced at the college, his contact information was not immediately available.
"This crucial victory makes clear that no university president is above the law," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Hayden's long nightmare is over and justice has been served. Ronald Zaccari will be held personally accountable for his flagrant disregard of Hayden's constitutional rights."
Judge Pannell also held that the board of regents of the Georgia university system breached its contract with Barnes by failing to follow the procedures for student discipline established in VSU's student handbook.
Barnes later graduated from Kennesaw State University and now attends the University of Baltimore School of Law.
"President Zaccari deliberately ignored sound, reasoned university procedure and in doing so stripped me of my constitutional rights," he said. "I hope this order serves as yet another reminder to college and university administrators around the country that they are not immune from the Constitution."