Thursday, January 17, 2008

THE LAWSON FILE: THE UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT WHO NEVER HEARD OF FREE SPEECH


So there is the guy at Valdosta State University in southern Georgia, a student, by the name of T. Hayden Barnes (pictured here), and he didn't like his University's plan to build a new parking garage costing $30 million. The $30 million would come from student fees.

So being a student at the Valdosta you'd figure he had the right to do what he did - put up flyers around the university in protest. He also sent out some e-mails including some to the university administration stating his position.

Guess what? Rather than ignore him or set up a meeting with concerned students, Valdosta State University, in Georgia, informed our student "radical", then a sophomore, that he had been “administratively withdrawn” effective May 7, 2007. In a letter apparently slipped under his dorm room door, Ronald Zaccari, the university’s president, wrote that Barnes “present[ed] a clear and present danger to this campus” and referred to the “attached threatening document,” a printout of an image from an album on Barnes’s Facebook profile. The collage featured a picture of a parking garage, a photo of Zaccari, a bulldozer, the words “No Blood for Oil” and the title “S.A.V.E.-Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” a reference to a campus environmental group and Barnes’s contention that the president sought to make the structures part of his legacy at the university.


And then, quite amazingly, the University of Georgia system upheld Zaccari's decision.

Now there are two things really wrong about this.

First, you'd be hard pressed to find any Americans out there (even in this day and age) who would tell you they think a college kid in Georgia ought to be thrown out of school for peacefully "protesting" a parking garage.

Second, the misuse of Facebook spots by school administrators of all stripes is getting out of hand and downright intimidating.

Of course, you would think that the president of a university would have heard of something called Free Speech, but then you have to remember that university presidents tend to think of themselves as intellectually above the rest of us and not to be questioned.

So I'm sure in this case Mr. U President would just tell you and me and Joe down the street that we haven't the brains to understand the issues and dangers involved which led him to crack down on this dangerous student.

Well, Mr. President, you've tackled a student who isn't impressed by your credentials or your position.

He's doing what all good Americans do in a case like this...he is going to court. (By the way coincidentally shortly after the suit was filed the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia reversed its earlier ruling against Barnes).

At the crux of what is now a federal lawsuit against Valdosta State, the document informing our student of his expulsion included a printout of an image posted on that Facebook profile as previously mentioned. Inside Higher Ed described the photo's contents:

"The collage featured a picture of a parking garage, a photo of Zaccari, a bulldozer, the words “No Blood for Oil” and the title “S.A.V.E.-Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” a reference to a campus environmental group and Barnes’s contention that the president sought to make the structures part of his legacy at the university."

As additional evidence of the threat posed by Barnes, the document referred to a link he posted to his Facebook profile whose accompanying graphic read: “Shoot it. Upload it. Get famous. Project Spotlight is searching for the next big thing. Are you it?” It doesn’t mention that Project Spotlight was an online digital video contest and that “shoot” in that context meant “record.”'

But how could we expect a university president to figure this one out?

Anyway this yutz of of president was also alarmed that Barnes’s Facebook profile stated, at one point, that he was “cleaning out and rearranging his room and thus, his mind, or so he hopes.” Scary stuff (well, to Zaccari anyway). The comments though were merely a status update, commonly used by Facebook members to update their friends on what they’re doing at a particular moment — whether literally or metaphorically.

But wait there is more to this story yet.

The university president did something here that should again concern every damn one of us. He found out that Barnes had availed himself of a counselor at the U. Again from Inside Higher Ed:

“Knowing that Barnes had availed himself of counseling services made available to all students by VSU, Zaccari secretly and repeatedly met with Barnes’s counselor seeking to justify his decision to expel him,” the lawsuit states. “What he learned from both the campus counseling center and from Barnes’s private psychiatrist who was consulted in the matter, however, was that Barnes had never exhibited any violent tendencies and that he did not represent any danger either to himself or to others. Quite to the contrary, despite a background in which he had been forced to cope with some difficult family issues from an early age, Barnes had developed into an engaged student, was a licensed and decorated emergency medical technician, and was politically aware and involved.”


Robert Corn-Revere, Barnes’s attorney and an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute said, "“Sometimes there will come along a set of facts where you read it and you think, they couldn't’t possibly have done this. Then you look at it [and realize that] yes, they did.”

Oh, by the way, there is one piece of good news...President Zaccari has since announced his retirement.

The following is from The Red and Black (an independent newspaper serving the University of Georgia community).

Expulsion for protest unfair
By: Chris Chiego

What happens when a college student peacefully criticizes the actions of his university's administration? At Valdosta State University, new details are emerging in an incident that appears to offer a disturbing answer to that question.

After reading about this incident in numerous media sources, I examined publicly available documents to try to uncover an answer. However, what I found only exacerbated my concerns.

In what should be of interest to all University System of Georgia students who value their First Amendment rights, this case reveals major issues with how far freedom of speech extends on university campuses.

The incident began with the most American of traditions: a peaceful, spirited protest by a determined individual.

In a scenario reminiscent of Tate II, a new parking garage costing $30 million was announced for the VSU campus, to be funded with student fees.

T. Hayden Barnes, a VSU student, was angered by the garage and fought back peacefully and legally, sending e-mails to senior administrators and putting up fliers around campus protesting the garage.

Unfortunately for Barnes, his repeated letters roused the ire of VSU President Ronald Zaccari, who at the end of last spring semester personally ordered Barnes to be "administratively withdrawn" - expelled - specifically citing a collage Barnes posted on Facebook, which Zaccari claimed amounted to a "clear and present danger."

This collage includes images of a parking garage, Zaccari, a bulldozer and a sign that says "no blood for oil," among other environmental images. The title of the collage, "S.A.V.E.-Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage," apparently was a reference to Zaccari's desire to leave a legacy when he retired (he did so late last year), but I could not see any of the "clear and present danger" claimed by Zaccari. See for yourself online. (http://thefire.org/index.php/article/8530.html)

When Barnes appealed the decision to expel him to the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents, the same governing body that oversees our University, the regents defended Zaccari, claiming Barnes posed a danger to the safety of campus. To prove this charge, the regents cited two examples from Barnes' Facebook profile in a document submitted to the state Office of Administrative Hearings last fall.

According to this document, while Barnes' Facebook status stated he was "cleaning out and rearranging his room and, thus, his mind," Barnes posted a link to a Web site that included the tagline, "Shoot it. Upload it. Get famous." A reference to school shootings?

No, actually an ad for a photography contest, but apparently considered grounds for action against Barnes, as the regents document links that with the Virginia Tech shootings.

Last week, with the aid of the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Barnes filed a lawsuit alleging that his rights to free speech and due process were denied.

FIRE's president, Greg Lukianoff, had harsh words for VSU, decrying VSU's "concerted effort to silence and punish Hayden Barnes" as an "unconscionable attempt to violate his First Amendment rights."

Hopefully new details will emerge soon to clarify what happened at VSU, as taking out-of-context material from students' Facebook profiles to justify expelling them seems absurd.

The regents, which is meeting today, should give Barnes a fair hearing and transparently determine in a timely manner the merits of Barnes' case. Georgia's public university students should not have to worry whether speaking out against their administrators could lead to an untimely departure from college.

- Chris Chiego is a junior from Memphis, Tenn. majoring in international affairs and history.

2 comments:

Ashton said...

It would be nice to have a link to send a little message to the University and to the retiring President. As a University Professor I would also question the Faculty Forum for not trying to censure the action.

Oread Daily said...

I would suggest just going to the University's home page and I'd guess you could find an email address.