MUN bans student from campus, accuses him of harassing university president

·5 min read
Matt Barter holds up a sign criticizing Memorial University president Vianne Timmons, left, as she speaks at a media briefing Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. (Submitted by Matt Barter - image credit)
Matt Barter holds up a sign criticizing Memorial University president Vianne Timmons, left, as she speaks at a media briefing Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. (Submitted by Matt Barter - image credit)
Submitted by Matt Barter
Submitted by Matt Barter

Memorial University's students' union is criticizing the university's decision to ban a student from campus for his protests against president Vianne Timmons.

Fourth-year student Matt Barter told CBC News he received an email Friday evening from MUN's director of student life that said a complaint had been filed against him under the university's student code of conduct for his behaviour at a media briefing held by Timmons on Thursday. At the event, Barter stood up while Timmons was speaking and held up a stop sign with "Stop Vianne! No to Tuition Hikes and Out of Control Spending!" printed on it.

Barter said the email accused him of behaviour "interpreted as harassing and intimidating towards Dr. Timmons," and that the university was taking interim measures to ban him from all St. John's campuses, except for classes, exams or medical services, and prohibit him from having any contact with Timmons or any members of the executive team.

"I don't understand how any of my actions can be perceived as harassment or intimidating to anyone. I have an issue with the decisions that Dr. Timmons has made as the president of Memorial. I don't have an issue with her personally. I don't know her as a person," he told CBC News.

Hilary Hennessey, the students' union's executive director of external affairs, says all students have a right to voice their concerns and protest.

"We feel as if the student code of conduct can sometimes be used in a way that silences student activism," Hennessey said.

"We believe that in order to continue speaking out against those in positions of power, we would like to see students continue to harness the freedom of expression."

Barter has been vocal in the past about spending at the university and the contracts given to Timmons and other university executives, as well as the recent decision to double tuition, starting in 2022.

Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

In September, he and the president butted heads over posters that he put up around campus calling for Timmons's resignation. At the time, Timmons said she took issue with the personal nature of the posters and directed staff to take them down because they violated MUN's respectful workplace policy.

It's also not the first time Barter has faced an accusation of harassment at the university. In 2017, when he was a member of the student union, a fellow member resigned, accusing him of harassment. Barter, in turn, said he was the one who had been harassed.

Barter says he believes the complaint is being used to silence his protests and that university officials are upset by the frequent criticisms he posts on his blog.

Danny Arenault/CBC
Danny Arenault/CBC

"I think that they're using that to try to censor opposition and that they're weaponizing the code of conduct. It seems obvious that they're really peeved that I published so much of their lavish spending, because they're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when MUN's financial situation is not good."

I stood still and I held up a sign. I did not prevent Dr. Timmons from speaking. - Matt Barter

Despite the complaint, Barter said, no one asked him to leave Timmons's media briefing on Dec. 2 or told him at the time that his protest was a problem.

"If you look at the code of conduct … they said that there's not allowed to be disruptions, and what they say a disruption is would be to physically block people from leaving or entering a room, or preventing a meeting or communication from happening," he said.

"I just stood up, I stood still and I held up a sign. I did not prevent Dr. Timmons from speaking."

Classes are now over for the semester, but Barter said he's still missing a lot by being barred from the university.

"I'm not getting what I paid [for] in my tuition money if I'm not allowed to go to the library and to talk to other members of the university community and take part in campus events and take part in the campus clubs that I'm a part of," he said.

The Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador is also in Barter's corner, tweeting that the administration's actions contradict Timmons's stated belief that it is a student's right and responsibility to protest.

MUN's faculty association, which represents many university staff, says it supports a harassment-free workplace but also supports academic freedom and freedom of expression at MUN, including the right to peaceful protest.

Perceived risk needed for interim measures, MUN says

In a statement to CBC News, the university said it does not comment on individual cases but it does support the right of students to protest.

"As recently as Friday, Dec. 3, students at Grenfell Campus protested tuition increases at an event and were in no way impeded or penalized," the statement read.

"However, student behaviour that infringes on the rights, responsibilities, well-being and dignity of members of the Memorial community must be addressed.… The freedom to express oneself does not protect behaviour that becomes harassing or intimidating. Behaviour that crosses that line takes itself into the realm of actionable conduct."

Paul Daly/CBC
Paul Daly/CBC

The university said it takes action through its student code of conduct "when informal early interventions fail." It said the code provides a mechanism for issues to be resolved in a timely manner and may include taking interim measures while an investigation is ongoing.

"For interim measures to be applied there has to be escalation, past patterns of behaviour and a perceived risk to the safety of individuals," the university's statement said.

"Interim measures are not a finding of guilt. Any student who is subject to a code complaint is given an opportunity to respond."

Barter said he he doesn't believe he did anything wrong and plans to respond to the complaint.

"I'm going to be using every resource that I possibly can, including possible legal action if they don't reverse the ban."

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