Big Win for Student Liberty

The Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has issued another landmark opinion that protects student rights against the arbitrary diktats of university officials. In a case that has wound up and down the federal judiciary several times, the court today again ruled for Valdosta State University student Thomas Hayden Barnes, who had been placed on administrative leave without a hearing after he had peacefully protested the construction of a parking garage.

As I described in summarizing the last brief Cato filed in this case, the Eleventh Circuit had previously affirmed the denial of qualified immunity against university president Ronald Zaccari, restating that malicious public officials aren’t entitled to special protections when they clearly violate the rights of another. On remand, the district court inexplicably let the defendants off on the student’s claim that Zaccari and others retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights—he had already won on other claims regarding his due process rights—then applied a severe across-the-board reduction of attorney’s fees awarded to Barnes, and even granted reverse attorney’s fees for the defendants who were held not liable, going so far as calling those claims frivolous solely because they were unsuccessful.

The Eleventh Circuit has now reversed the lower court yet again, on all these points, asking the district court to reconsider the First Amendment claim and recalculate the attorney’s fees. The decision is pretty technical with no really quotable passages, but the workmanlike slap-down of the district court is notable.

Students who stand up for their constitutional rights are rare, and imposing unfavorable fee awards will only make it more difficult for them to secure strong representation. (Barnes’s counsel is the renowned First Amendment lawyer and Cato adjunct scholar Bob Corn-Revere.) The district court, while acknowledging that some rights were violated, only offered half-measures as a remedy. The Eleventh Circuit has now corrected that mistake, sending university officials the loud, clear message that constitutional protections don’t stop at the edge of campus.