If you're a fan of The Fire (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), then you're probably familiar with the story of Hayden Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University who was expelled for criticizing university president Ronald Zaccari's pet parking garage project. After posting a collage on Facebook, which he sent to no one, Zaccari declared him a "clear and present danger" to the university and had him administratively withdrawn without a hearing. [See a rather crappy black and white scan of the collage here.]
Long story short, Fire got involved and five years later a jury found Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 in damages for violating Barnes's rights to free speech and due process. [More details here.]
We're going to skip over most of the legal battle though and get down to what has to be the worst legal defense in the history of legal defenses. The university president tried to argue that he had qualified immunity, an argument rejected at the district level and on appeal. Qualified immunity is a defense that protects government officials (state university personnel are included) when they engage in an action that violates someone's civil rights but which was not a clear violation of established law. For instance, if a search warrant contains a novel defect, and at trial the court find that the execution of the warrant was unconstitutional, the police officers executing the warrant will probably be immune from personal liability because the defect was novel. The Fourth Amendment might still cause the evidence to be tossed out, but you can't go after the cops for damages because we don't expect every government official to be a constitutional scholar capable of figuring out issues that are not already established law.
In this suit, Zaccari was faced with the fact that case law already clearly established that students facing expulsion from public universities are entitled to due process. For the qualified immunity complaint, Zaccari argues that he sought advice from the in-house counsel at Valdosta and relied on that advice. We'll let you read why exactly that argument failed:
The court is unpersuaded by Zaccari’s argument that he is entitled to qualified immunity because he “sought out legal advice” from Gaskins and Neely and relied on their advice. The law is clearly established in the Eleventh Circuit that “due process requires notice and some opportunity for hearing before a student at a tax-supported college is expelled for misconduct.” Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education, 294 F.2d at 151. Moreover, the court finds Zaccari’s assertion that he relied upon the advice of Gaskins and Neely disingenuous. The undisputed facts show that Zaccari ignored the lawyers’ warnings that withdrawing Barnes would require due process in executing his administrative withdrawal of Barnes. The court declines to accept Zaccari’s argument that because he sought legal advice from Gaskins and Neely, both of whom advised against the President’s withdrawal of Barnes, Zaccari is still entitled to qualified immunity even though he took action contrary to the advice. Accordingly, the court denies Zaccari’s motion for summary judgment as to Count 4 of Barnes’s complaint.
"How was I supposed to know what I was doing was unconstitutional? I even asked my lawyers about it!"
"Your lawyers told you it was unconstitutional, you idiot! Now pay $50,000."