There is great news for students from a Georgia jury today, as former Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari has been found liable for $50,000 in damages for unjustly kicking one of his students, Hayden Barnes, out of school for a collage he posted on Facebook.
Absurdly declared a “clear and present danger” and kicked off of campus in 2007 because of his opposition to a parking garage project that former president Zaccari saw as part of his “legacy,” Barnes filed a federal lawsuit against Zaccari and his employer in 2008.
Why did it take so long for justice to be served? The case was more complicated than many, as the court first had to determine that a state college administrator (in this case, Zaccari) was not entitled to the defense of “qualified immunity” for his actions because he should have known they were unlawful when he was doing them. Usually, public college administrators who blatantly violate the Constitution and due process rights get off scot-free even when they lose, as their employers (read: the taxpayers) get stuck with the bill for their transgressions. The thin reed of reason on which this “qualified immunity” rests is that administrators supposedly didn’t know that their actions were unconstitutional when they took them. (Yes, that’s pretty farfetched in most of the case FIRE sees, but courts tend to buy it.)
Zaccari appealed this finding, and it went all the way to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, where Zaccari lost. When the appeals were finished and the case came before a jury, the jig was up: Zaccari personally owes Barnes $50,000—and the court has not even assessed attorneys’ fees yet.
FIRE has much more on its website (and the case is featured at length in our president’s book Unlearning Liberty), but this is a huge victory for student rights—one that can’t help but send shock waves through higher education. Until today, administrators at public universities could violate the Constitution with impunity. With today’s decision, that era is hopefully drawing to a close.
Robert Shibley is Senior Vice President of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)