SPLC Supports Georgia Student Activist in Legal Challenge to College Expulsion


Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”) filed a friend-of-the-court brief Monday urging the Atlanta-based Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to affirm a favorable ruling finding that Valdosta State University violated the rights of a student environmental activist by expelling him for campaigning against a campus parking garage.

The SPLC’s brief supports the legal claims of Thomas Hayden Barnes, a student environmental activist who was kicked out of Valdosta State, a public university in South Georgia, in May 2007.

Then-Valdosta State President Ronald Zaccari arranged for Barnes to be “administratively withdrawn” with no advance notice or opportunity to contest his removal – which Barnes learned about when the college shoved a letter under the door of his dorm room. Barnes had been waging a campaign to defeat a proposed parking garage that Zaccari championed. Zaccari was angered by Barnes’ protests and sought to portray Barnes as dangerously unstable – even though experts advised Zaccari that Barnes posed no threat and had done nothing to warrant expulsion. Barnes was reinstated after an appeal to the state board of regents, which took months to resolve and forced him to miss a semester of college.

“What Hayden Barnes was doing was not classically journalistic, but the standard that the Eleventh Circuit sets in his case will impact how well college journalists are protected against retaliation through disciplinary channels,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, who authored the brief with SPLC attorneys Laura Napoli, Adam Schulman and Adam Goldstein. “We have too often seen colleges use the threat of student conduct charges to intimidate journalists, and it is vital that the court send a strong message that students cannot be railroaded out of college in kangaroo-court proceedings just because of what they write.”

On Sept. 3, 2010, U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell of the Northern District of Georgia ruled not only that Zaccari had violated Barnes’ right to a due process hearing, but that the law so clearly favored Barnes that Zaccari can be held personally liable for financial damages. Judge Pannell also ruled that the university violated Barnes’ contractual rights by reneging on promises made in a student handbook guaranteeing students a fair opportunity to be heard before discipline is imposed. The college and Zaccari are appealing those rulings.

“The strong protection that accompanies even hurtful and offensive speech addressing matters of public concern ... would be undermined if government actors were empowered to censor indirectly through summary disciplinary proceedings in which they serve as accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner,” the SPLC wrote in its brief. “The president of a public university is one of state government’s most powerful actors, wielding enormous influence over the lives of those attending the institution. It is the rare student who has the fortitude to challenge that authority and to hold his university administration accountable for its policy decisions. Due process, and the contractual force of university policies, are partial equalizers of this power differential. These protections make it possible for students to safely perform their essential oversight functions as ‘citizens’ of the campus community, just as they soon will be doing in their off-campus lives.”

The case is Barnes v. Zaccari, Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Case No. 10-14622. The case will be assigned to a three-judge panel; no hearing date has been set, and a final decision typically takes at least half a year. Barnes is represented by the powerhouse media-law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, and its partner, Robert Corn-Revere, and by Cary Stephen Wiggins of Atlanta-based Cook Youngelson & Wiggins.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics.

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