A case that began back in 2007 has again delivered a victory, this time for student speech. ACTA is proud to have been part of the coalition that submitted amicus briefs to the Eleventh Circuit Court in support of the student plaintiff. We could not be more pleased with this outcome, which recognizes the primacy of First Amendment rights in a democratic society and rectifies a great injustice inflicted on an outspoken student.
Hayden Barnes, a former student at Georgia’s Valdosta State University (VSU) began his journey through the legal system—with the aid of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s legal team—after the school’s president Ronald Zaccari expelled him. Zaccari claimed that Barnes represented a “clear and present danger” to VSU after he posted a “threatening document” on his Facebook wall.
What was the supposedly threatening message? A photo collage protesting the decision to build more parking garages on VSU’s campus. Barnes had concerns about the environmental impact of the decision, and sought to share those concerns with the campus community. Barnes was expelled without any hearing or ability to appeal the decision, which was made unilaterally by President Zaccari.
There were therefore two issues at play in the original 2008 lawsuit: the violation of Barnes’ First Amendment right to post the collage, and the violation of his right to due process when facing expulsion from VSU. In 2013, a federal district court decided in favor of Barnes on due process grounds, awarding him some $50,000 in damages. The First Amendment issue, however, was originally dismissed.
Now, on appeal, the Eleventh Circuit Court has remanded the First Amendment claim back to the lower court. This is a great victory for free speech advocates and for all concerned about the state of students’ rights on campus. Rather than viewing the restriction of Barnes’ speech as secondary to the violation of his due process rights, we should recognize that these are equally dangerous rights violations and that the right to free speech is as robust and as important as every other right enshrined in our Constitution.
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