A ruling from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has given a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia permission to go to court with his civil-rights claim and seek damages from former school president Ronald Zaccari personally.

The ruling affirmed a judgment from the district court in the case brought by student Thomas Hayden Barnes against Zaccari, except that the appeals court ruled members of the school’s board of regents were protected by an immunity from lawsuits.

Zaccari, however, is not, and the appeals court returned the case to the district court for handling in line with its decision.

Barnes brought the claim after Zaccari ordered him to be “administratively withdrawn,” or expelled, because Zaccari alleged Barnes was a threat. The student had been campaigning and contacting school officials to oppose a plan by Zaccari to spend $30 million of the college’s money for a parking garage.

No one else in the school administration perceived Barnes to be a threat, and several even warned Zaccari that if he took action against the student, he would at least be entitled to due process, such as a hearing to defend himself.

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Zaccari, now no longer the school’s president, at the time ignored the warnings and comments and ordered Barnes removed.

He sued.

This week the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision allowing Barnes to sue Zaccari personally.

“The [state university] code repeatedly assures VSU students that they will receive due process before being suspended or expelled. Having made such assurances, Zaccari cannot reverse course and ‘magically declare’ Barnes’s entitlement to his continued enrollment is not a protected property interest…,” the court said.

“This landmark ruling from the 11th Circuit leaves no doubt that university administrators who choose to ignore the due process rights of their students do so at their peril,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which worked on the case.

“For too long, college administrators have blatantly ignored their students’ constitutional rights when they deemed it convenient. With this decision, it appears that courts are finally ready to make them personally pay for that abuse of power.”

The court determined that a jury would need to decide if there is liability and what it would be.

“Barnes’ ordeal began in the spring of 2007, when he peacefully protested Zaccari’s plan to spend $30 million of student fee money to construct two parking garages on campus. By posting flyers and sending emails to Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, Barnes expressed his concerns and proposed what he saw as environmentally friendly alternatives. Barnes also penned a letter to the editor of the VSU student newspaper about the proposed parking garage plans and wrote to Zaccari to ask for an exemption from the mandatory student fee designated for funding the construction,” FIRE reported.

The result was that Zaccari “personally ordered that [Barnes] be ‘administratively withdrawn’ from VSU, ignoring the concerns raised by members of his administration,” FIRE reported.

“The 11th Circuit’s decision is a clear win for student rights,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “It’s been nearly five years since Hayden was unconstitutionally kicked out of Valdosta State, but justice is on its way.”

At the time that the district judge ruled in favor of Barnes, FIRE sent hundreds of letters to college presidents and others to put them on notice that their own hefty personal payment packages could be hit if they violate free speech rights of students.

“For too long, public college administrators have been intentionally violating the free speech rights of their students, secure in the knowledge that they won’t personally lose a dime should a court rule against them,” said Robert Shibley, a senior vice president for FIRE, at the time. “This has given administrators the opportunity to censor whatever opinions they dislike and make all of us pay for it.”

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