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

from the delayed-justice dept

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 Therefore, pursuant to Board of Regents' policy 1902, you are hereby notified that you have been administratively withdrawn from Valdosta State University effective May 7, 2007.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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Filed Under: first amendment, free speech, hayden barnes, ronald zaccari
Companies: valdosta state university


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 10:24am

    I have a dream... That politicians will be personally held accountable for damages they knowingly cause.

    Then I fell off my bed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2015 @ 10:52am

    can we use this ruling to hold the police, politicians, and public servants personally accountable for their actions?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2015 @ 11:55am

      Re:

      ...Can we use this ruling to hold the police, politicians, and public servants personally accountable for their actions?...


      Will any - or all - of that take 8 years as well?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2015 @ 11:06am

    Such a bogus accusation that ruins someone's life should've cost them at least $9 million.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 11:11am

    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.

    Sounds like a good start. When we start applying the same standard to CEOs and Board of Directors members, then I'll be truly impressed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2015 @ 8:41pm

      Re:

      and bought politicians, AG's, and other regulators.

      HAHAHA HAHA, I had to laugh because, sadly, it'll never happen

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 11:24am

    "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…"
    o.0
    Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the payout is unjustified in any way, I just wish that it was the teachers' union paying it instead of the university.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 12:23pm

    In the first couple years after 9/11 the federal government distributed $13.1 billion in grants to the states to fight terrorism. As of 2010 the Homeland Security Grant Program distributes around $1.8 billion a year including to schools and universites.

    So a bogus expulsion over a supposed threat cost the university $900,000 after most of a decade. I'd like to know how much money they received from the government in the same decade to "fight terrorism." And whether this "threat" was used at least in part to justify it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2015 @ 12:27pm

    A pdf of a scan of a printout of a screenshot of a facebook image. Technology!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Jul 2015 @ 1:12am

      Re:

      I'm not sure if you have ever received emails from lawyers but they are usually scans of photocopys of printouts (I'm surprised they don't fax it to themselves).

      I think their intention is to intentionally degrade the quality of the document just in case you want to modify it or forge docs from them. Really it just makes everything harder to read.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Baron von Robber, 27 Jul 2015 @ 12:28pm

    "Dear Million-Dollar-Moron Zaccari,

    Perhaps you should have just responded to Barnes with a simple form letter, such as "Thank you taking an interest in our University's business dealings. We will take it under advisement."

    Best part....IT'S FREE!!!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    seedeevee (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 12:43pm

    "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."

    Will the world really end if the immunities of the powerful are taken away?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    lars626 (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 12:52pm

    The 'qualified immunity' went away when he asked the colleges lawyers about it and they said NOT to do it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    afn29129 (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 1:39pm

    Now to collect

    Now comes time to collect.
    Home, Automobiles, bank accounts, garnishments, etc.

    yeah! :}

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 1:49pm

    Way to go, kid!

    That's $112,500.00 per year before even graduating. Sad that it took them eight years to pay up, but still a good haul. I wonder how many other VDU students can boast that sort of income.

    Who's next? >:-) # [

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 1:59pm

      Re: Way to go, kid!

      What income? That's before legal fees. As the article states:
      $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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2015 @ 2:30pm

    i wonder what revenge he is plotting and how he can hang on to the money, rather than cough up 50 grand! given the stupidity he's shown so far, nothing should be a surprise!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 4:01pm

      Re:

      I'd expect them to pay the sum in cash, then alert the local police that a known "security threat" is carrying a large sum of cash for "unknown purposes". One asset forfeiture later and things are back to square one.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 27 Jul 2015 @ 5:57pm

        Re: Re:

        He wouldn't even need to mention the 'security threat' bit, just tell the cops that someone's carrying a bunch of cash and you can be sure they'll steal it as soon as they can get there.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 28 Jul 2015 @ 12:36am

    It is so nice to see where someone has been affected by the brain damaged caused by power get the beatdown they deserve for abusing that power.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Jul 2015 @ 7:27pm

    Garages

    Did they build the Zaccari Memorial parking garages?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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