Student foe of Ga. college’s parking project appeals expulsion

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Editor’s note: On Sept. 3, 2010, U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. ruled that Ronald Zaccari was personally and financially liable for violating the due-process and free-speech rights of T. Hayden Barnes by expelling him. (According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Georgia Board of Regents on Jan. 16, 2008, reversed Barnes' expulsion, a week after Barnes filed his lawsuit.)

An undergraduate who was declared by the Valdosta State University president
as a “clear and present danger” for his protests is appealing his expulsion from
the Georgia school.

Ronald M. Zaccari, president of the university in Valdosta, expelled T.
Hayden Barnes after the junior protested the school's construction of two
parking decks by posting fliers, writing a letter to the student newspaper,
contacting members of the state board of regents and posting items on his
Facebook profile.

In May, the university “administratively withdrew” Barnes after he actively
protested against the parking-garage projects. Barnes has appealed the decision
and is to present his case to the state Office of State Administrative Hearings
on Nov. 26. He has enlisted help from the Foundation for Individual Rights
in Education.

When Barnes, then a junior, returned to his dorm room on May 7, he found a
letter slid under his door. The letter, signed by Zaccari, stated that Barnes
had “been administratively withdrawn” effective that day. It said Barnes was
considered a “clear and present danger to this campus.” As evidence of the
danger he allegedly posed, the school attached a copy of a collage Barnes had
posted on his Facebook page. The collage included several images, including a
photograph of Zaccari, a “No Blood for Oil” sign and a parking garage. On top of
the collage appear the words “S.A.V.E. – Zaccari Memorial Garage.” S.A.V.E.
refers to Students Against Violating the Environment, a student environmental
advocacy group on VSU’s campus. Barnes referenced the group hoping to persuade
it to join him in protesting the garage project.

The letter set out the requirements for Barnes' continued enrollment: submit
correspondence from a non-university psychiatrist stating he was not a danger to
himself or others and documentation from a “certified mental health
professional” showing he would receive ongoing therapy during his tenure at

Barnes, who had transferred to VSU for his junior year, considers himself an
activist and had led a rally against the Iraq war, according to the VSU student
paper, The Spectator. He first learned about the parking project when
The Spectator ran a story in its March 22 edition. The article described
the plans for the project and the school’s proposal to use $30 million of
mandatory student-fee money.

Concerned with the environmental impact of the project, Barnes posted fliers
detailing what he considered more environmentally friendly alternatives. The
fliers also listed the contact information for Zaccari and Georgia Board of
Regents members. When members of S.A.V.E. informed Barnes the next week that
Zaccari was upset by the fliers, Barnes removed them and apologized to the
university president.

The day before the board of regents was scheduled to vote on the project,
Barnes telephoned several board members to voice his concerns. That evening,
Barnes met with Zaccari and Dean of Students Russ Mast at the president’s
office. At that meeting, Barnes presented his views to the two administrators.
According to Barnes, Zaccari then informed him that he had personally
embarrassed Zaccari and that the VSU president thought Barnes had “gone away”
after taking down the fliers. Barnes also remembers Zaccari referring to his
“legacy” as VSU president, which Barnes cites as the target of the “memorial” in
his collage.

A few days after the board approved the project, Barnes posted the collage on
his Facebook profile. The next week, on April 19, The Spectator published
a letter to the editor from Barnes. In it, he posed questions about alternative
solutions to the school’s parking problems and calls for the student government
to revoke its endorsement of the parking-garage project.

On April 26, Barnes wrote Zaccari requesting an exemption from a $100
mandatory student fee to fund the parking deck, instead volunteering to donate
$100 to any campus organization related to environmental concerns. In a
postscript, Barnes informed the president that he had ordered a copy of Jared
Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail. Barnes said
he intended to give the book to Zaccari because it “presents a compelling theory
on how societies live or die based on their relationship to the Earth.”

Barnes’ request for an exemption was his last contact with Zaccari regarding
the issue before he received the May 7 withdrawal notice. He filed an appeal to
the withdrawal May 19, which is to be heard later this month by Judge John B.
Gatto of the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings.

Because Barnes has transferred to Kennesaw State University, his appeal asks
that he be paid the difference in costs between VSU and Kennesaw State. In the
appeal, Barnes has to show that VSU acted in an “arbitrary or capricious”

In addition to the collage, VSU points to several other aspects of Barnes’
Facebook page that justify the school’s concerns. In particular, it states that
Barnes “posted a link on his website page to an article discussing the massacre
at Virginia Tech,” which occurred April 16 – just before Barnes submitted his
letter to the editor; linked to a film competition advertisement stating “Shoot
it. Upload it. Get famous. Project Spotlight is looking for the next big thing.
Are you it?”; and listed on Facebook his status as “cleaning out and rearranging
his room and thus, his mind, or so he hopes.”

In VSU’s response to Barnes’ appeal, the university says Zaccari considered
Barnes as posing “a specific threat to his (Zaccari’s) safety and a general
threat to the safety of the campus.” In response to this perceived threat,
Zaccari held several meetings with “top-level campus administrators,” hired
plain-clothes police officers to accompany him during high-profile events and
put uniformed officers on “high alert.” Nevertheless, the administration never
informed the student body of any threat.

In his letter of appeal, Barnes wrote that only after his expulsion did he
learn that buildings named “memorial” typically are only named after people who
have died. He maintains that he intended no harm come to Zaccari and, owing to
Facebook’s controls on viewers, did not expect Zaccari ever to see the

Commenting on the case, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff stated in a press
release, “A kind of madness seems to be gripping our colleges, one in which
merely claiming a student poses a ‘threat' — no matter how absurd or attenuated
the allegation may be — is enough to punish even the most clearly protected

He added, “In its attempt to eliminate a student activist, the school has
eliminated basic fairness, free speech, and due process.”

Barnes’ expulsion is one of several cases of schools disciplining students
and citing mental-health concerns after the shootings at Virginia Tech. Last
month, Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va., banned a student
from its campus pending psychiatric review after he posted a photo of Regent’s
founder and President Pat Robertson apparently making an offensive gesture,
according to the Associated Press.

Josh Tatum is a third-year law student and Master's of Divinity candidate
at Vanderbilt University.

Tags: , ,