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VSU Administrator Violated Expelled Student's Due Process Rights

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 10, 2012 3:08 PM

Ronald Zaccari, the former President of Valdosta State University (VSU), expelled Thomas Hayden Barnes, a student, from the University in 2007 on the ground that Barnes presented a "clear and present danger" to the campus.

Granted, it was in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, and college administrators were a little jumpy, but Barnes did not receive a notice or a hearing before his expulsion. This week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Zaccari could be held personally liable for violating Barnes' due process rights, reports The Huffington Post.

First, let's back up to discuss the wrongdoing that prompted the expulsion: Barnes was expelled for protesting a planned parking deck on the VSU campus.

Barnes, concerned about the environmental impact of the structure, decided to protest it. He posted a series of flyers around campus, emailed VSU officials and students about his concerns, and posted information about the project to his Facebook page.

Zaccari was not happy about the protest.

Zaccari grew more concerned about Barnes' presence on campus in the following weeks, despite the fact that Barnes' protest was polite and respectful. Several weeks after the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, Zaccari decided to administratively withdraw Barnes from VSU under the University System of Georgia's Policy 1902, claiming that Barnes was a threat to the campus.

Policy 1902, the administrative withdrawal policy, provides for the removal of a student who clearly obstructs or disrupts, or attempts to obstruct or disrupt campus activities. Zaccari concluded that Policy 1902 did not require that he provide Barnes with prior notice of his decision or a hearing to oppose it. Zaccari's in-house lawyer warned, on at least three occasions, that the administrative withdrawal would violate Barnes's due process rights, but Zaccari didn't listen.

On May 7, 2007, the VSU police department slipped a letter under Barnes's dorm room door, informing Barnes that he was "a clear and present danger" to the VSU campus, and had been administratively withdrawn. Barnes sued, Zaccari claimed qualified immunity, and now we find this case in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Eleventh Circuit ruled this week that Barnes "had a clearly established constitutional right to notice and a hearing before being removed from VSU," and affirmed the district court's denial of Zaccari's motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

We understand that administrators feel helpless after a tragedy like the Virginia Tech massacre, but that doesn't give them license to trample students' constitutional rights. If you represent an administrator whose proposed actions violate a clearly-established constitutional rights, remind the administrator that he could be held personally liable for the violation.

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