Students’ constitutional rights to free speech have been hard hit by campus diversity codes enacted in the name of “tolerance” and “civility”.

President of the Foundation for Individual rights in Education, Greg Lukianoff, reviewed the recent decision by a federal jury in Georgia to hold a former college president personally liable for $50,000 for violating the Constitutional rights of student Hayden Barnes.   He also notes how this case may help end the decades-long scandal of speech codes on our nation’s college campuses.

In a case that may help end the decades-long scandal of speech codes on college campuses, a federal jury in Georgia this month held the former president of a public university personally liable for violating the basic rights of one of his students.

In 2007, Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari expelled student Hayden Barnes after Mr. Barnes protested Mr. Zaccari’s plan to construct two new parking garages on campus. Mr. Barnes believed that the university should pursue more environmentally friendly alternatives, and he let the campus community know his opinion through a determined yet civil campaign, including posting flyers around campus, writing to the campus newspaper, and contacting fellow students and other members of the university community. One flyer pointed out that the estimated $30 million cost of the garages could provide 2,940 full scholarships for students at the school.

Mr. Zaccari apparently began looking for a reason to expel this meddlesome student. He settled upon a collage that Mr. Barnes had posted on Facebook that referred to the construction project as a “memorial” parking garage, a joke on the president’s belief that the garage would be part of his legacy. Mr. Zaccari, alleging that the use of the word “memorial” constituted a threat on his life, threw Mr. Barnes out of school, despite objections by his own staff and statements from multiple psychologists that the student (a believer in nonviolence and a decorated emergency medical technician) wasn’t a threat to anyone.

Mr. Barnes filed suit in 2008, enlisting the help of First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere. This month a federal jury found against Mr. Zaccari and awarded $50,000 in compensatory damages to Mr. Barnes. Mr. Zaccari (who announced his retirement in the fall of 2007) may also be held liable for Mr. Barnes’s legal fees.

Lukianoff condenses the results of cases with which FIRE has been involved.

More than a dozen major court rulings have forced public universities to end unconstitutional restrictions on speech. My organization has given hundreds of top colleges notice that their policies would likely be similarly struck down by courts. Because the law regarding student First Amendment rights is so clearly established, when public universities are proved guilty of enforcing unlawful speech codes anyway, administrators should be held personally liable.