Valdosta State University has expelled a student for peacefully protesting the school’s decision to construct two new parking decks on campus.
After the Georgia college’s President Ronald M. Zaccari labeled student T. Hayden Barnes a “clear and present danger” and mandated that he submit certifications of his mental health and on-going therapy as conditions of his readmission, Barnes contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“A kind of madness seems to be gripping our colleges, one in which merely claiming a student poses a ‘threat’ — no matter how absurd or attenuated the allegation may be — is enough to punish even the most clearly protected speech,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said.
“This case represents the extreme of this troubling trend. Hayden Barnes did nothing wrong; the claim that his speech was threatening is specious, and the university’s decision to expel him is truly chilling.”
VSU’s student newspaper ran an article on March 22, outlining plans to spend $30 million of mandatory student fee money to build two new parking decks on campus.
Barnes posted flyers and e-mailed Zaccari, student and faculty governing bodies, and the Board of Regents detailing his environmental concerns about the parking structures and proposing environmentally friendly options.
On March 26, Barnes was informed by members of VSU’s Students Against Violating the Environment that Zaccari was upset by his flyers. In response, Barnes apologized to Zaccari and took the flyers down, according to a statement from FIRE, a nonprofit foundation that works in support of individual rights and academic freedom at U.S. colleges and universities.
On April 13, Barnes posted a collage of pictures on his Facebook.com page, including pictures of Zaccari, a parking facility, a bulldozer excavating trees, automobile exhaust, a gas mask, an asthma inhaler, and a public bus underneath the “not allowed” symbol.
Barnes also wrote a letter to the editor of the VSU student paper about the proposed parking plans and wrote to Zaccari to ask for an exemption from the mandatory student fee designated for funding the parking facility construction.
According to VSU, Barnes also “posted a link on his Web site page to an article discussing the massacre at Virginia Tech.”
On May 7, Barnes found a “notice of administrative withdrawal” from Zaccari underneath his dormitory door, informing him that “as a result of recent activities directed towards me by you, included [sic] but not limited to the attached threatening document [the Facebook collage], you are considered to present a clear and present danger to this campus.”
Barnes appealed Zaccari’s decision on May 21, forwarding a letter of support from a faculty member and a clean bill of mental health from a psychiatrist.
According to FIRE, “Zaccari amazingly claims that Barnes’ actions constituted ‘a specific threat to his [Zaccari’s] safety and a general threat to the safety of the campus.’”
After reviewing Barnes’ appeal, the Board of Regents referred the case to an Administrative Law Judge for further hearing. The Office of State Administrative Hearings now has jurisdiction over the appeal, and a hearing date has been set for November 26.
FIRE wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Erroll B. Davis, Jr., explaining that Barnes has effectively been expelled for engaging in protected speech and has been denied due process rights.
“VSU has punished a vocal student for peacefully protesting a university parking garage,” Lukianoff said, urging readers to ask whether Barnes’ actions “really equaled a terror risk necessitating a student’s immediate expulsion. In its attempt to eliminate a student activist, VSU has eliminated basic fairness, free speech, and due process.”
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