By Anne Lowe

FREE SPEECH – A former public university president who summarily expelled a student without notice in retaliation for his criticism will be held personally liable in damages for violating the student’s due-process rights, a federal court has ruled in an unprecedented decision.

In 2007, then Valdosta State University President Ronald M. Zaccari expelled Hayden Barnes after Barnes posted fliers and a collage opposing the construction of a parking garage on campus. Barnes’ only notice of his explusion came in a letter in May, in which Zaccari told Barnes he presented a “clear and present danger” to the school.

Barnes appealed to the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, but then sued in federal court when his appeal stalled.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

On Friday a federal judge said that Mr. Zaccari, who discounted the opinions of counselors and fellow administrators that Mr. Barnes was not a threat, violated his due-process rights. Courts generally expect public universities to give students some type of notice and afford them a hearing before taking any disciplinary action.

Mr. Zaccari also disregarded advice from university lawyers about those requirements, wrote Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta. "The undisputed facts show that Zaccari ignored the lawyers' warnings that withdrawing Barnes would require due process."

By violating "clearly established" law, the judge said, Mr. Zaccari is not protected under the sovereign immunity constitutionally granted to state institutions.The ruling also found the regents liable for breach of contract, because the university did not follow policies and procedures in its student handbook, which the judge determined to be a binding agreement between students and the board. Courts differ on the legal standing of such documents, but Judge Pannell was clear: "The VSU Student Handbook provided to Barnes upon enrollment constituted a valid, written contract."

The incident took place shortly after the shootings at Virginia Tech, the article explains, which lawyer Gary Pavela said resulted in the erosion of students’ due-process rights.

"It's a great temptation to seize upon the fears that arose out of Virginia Tech and apply the label of 'threat' or 'perceived threat,' and then use it to get rid of people who bother us," said Mr. Pavela. "We are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves in thinking we can dispense with due process."

At Valdosta State, Mr. Zaccari had discussed Mr. Barnes's actions with staff members who typically compose a threat-assessment team: a counselor, a police officer, a lawyer, and student-affairs administrators.

Decisions about how to proceed when a student's conduct has raised concern are inevitably tricky, said Allen W. Groves, dean of students at the University of Virginia, who is also a lawyer.

"Obviously you're always trying to see where the line falls," Mr. Groves said. Even when a student is perceived as a threat, "those due-process rights don't go away," he said. "There has to be some opportunity to be heard."