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When Memorial University’s St. John’s campus reopens from the latest pandemic shutdown, Matthew Barter will not be able to make use of the same array of spaces and resources as other students.

In a social media post on Tuesday, the fourth-year political science and sociology student threatened legal action against MUNL after learning the university is maintaining much of the interim ban it placed on him pending the investigation into a harassment complaint initiated by the university in December.

Barter was banned from campus, except to attend classes, a day after he held a one-person silent protest at a December 2 news conference where he held up a sign at the front of a room near university President Vianne Timmons that read “Stop Vianne” and “No to tuition hikes and out of control spending”.

Almost a week after his protest, Barter received a letter from MUNL Chief Risk Officer Greg McDougall that “purported to complain about Mr. Barter’s behaviour,” Barter’s lawyer Kyle Rees wrote in a Dec. 15 letter to the university that Barter has made public. But the letter, Rees says, referred not just to Barter’s silent protest; it also alluded to Barter’s past behaviour “from 2018, 2019, and even events which occurred in other Provinces with no connection to Memorial.”

According to MUNL’s student code of conduct, complaints “shall be made within one year after the alleged offence occurred.”

Last Friday Rees told The Independent he received a call from a lawyer representing MUNL to inform him that all interim restrictions placed on Barter pending the outcome of an investigation that could take up to three months to complete would be lifted, with the sole exception being that Barter would not be allowed to visit Dr. Timmons’ office. 

But on Tuesday Barter received another letter from the university, this time from Student Conduct Officer Jennifer Browne, informing him that he would now be permitted to visit the Queen Elizabeth II Library and the University Centre without checking in with campus enforcement, “for the purpose of accessing resources, once the university is back to on-campus learning.” If Barter does not adhere to the remaining restrictions, Browne warns, he could face further sanctions.

Rees says the letter came as a surprise to him. “The purpose of the student code of conduct interim measures is if somebody presents an immediate danger or risk of harm to people in the university, to keep them out of these places where they are at risk of doing this harm,” he told The Independent on Wednesday. “There’s no logic or justification, I don’t think, behind why Matt could cause harm to someone at a political science mixer, or meeting up with his friends for a coffee at the Tim Horton’s attached to the Aquarena, than he would at the [University Centre] or in his classes or in the library.”

In his Facebook post on Tuesday, Barter called on “the perpetrators of this injustice to resign, including President Vianne Timmons, Director of Student Life Jennifer Browne, Chief Risk Officer Greg McDougall and all involved. Such egregious breaches of fundamental rights are not acceptable in our institutions of higher learning and cannot be tolerated in our community.

“There is no reason to prevent me from accessing The Works, Tim Hortons, a mixer at the Political Science department, a church meeting on campus, an after-hours public lecture at the Bruneau Centre, or visiting a friend in residence,” he added. “If the university does not remove the ban completely, an injunction will be filed at the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Barter “exploring” legal options

Given the university’s apparent change of mind on which restrictions to lift, Rees says he and Barter now believe MUNL’s restrictions on Barter’s access to the university “is purely punitive.”

Rees says he and Barter haven’t given MUNL a date by which the ban must be lifted to avoid legal action, and that given the backlog in the courts due to COVID-19, “the investigation will likely be concluded before we could get into Court.”

Still, they are “exploring our options from a legal perspective,” he said Thursday.

Barter is politically active on campus and for several years has advocated for accessible education and fair and transparent university governance. He attends university senate meetings, protests and rallies, and publishes op-eds and reports on his blog that are often critical of the university’s administration. 

Between the time that MUNL communicated to Rees that all but one of the restrictions placed on Barter would be lifted, and the time Barter received the letter indicating otherwise, Barter published excerpts from communications he says were obtained through an access to information request that “reveals the outcry of Memorial University Alumni members” over MUNL’s decision to ban him from parts of campus, he wrote in a Jan. 16 blog post.

“[A]nd then all of a sudden these conditions that we understood were going to be alleviated are only partially so,” says Rees. “I think that this is evidence of the university doing exactly what we were concerned was the case, which is using their student code of conduct to silence dissent and to punish students, on an interim basis and before there’s been any finding by their investigator. It’s really disheartening.”

Last week Jim Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at X University in Toronto, told The Independent that while all details of the allegations against Barter aren’t known, it appears as though the university is violating Barter’s charter rights.

“I think that disciplining a student […] for engaging in a silent protest over a public matter is wholly inappropriate in a university, and is antithetical to the university’s important commitment to freedom of expression,” he added.

Memorial University’s student union, it’s faculty association and others have criticized the university over Barter’s ban.

MUNL spokesperson David Sorensen told The Independent on Wednesday the university has “nothing further to add” on the situation. 

Process lacks accountability

A MUNL alumnus, Rees is dismayed by the whole situation, particularly the fact that it’s not clear who is behind the complaint against Barter.

“I don’t actually know who’s calling the shots here,” he says, pointing out the complaint was filed by McDougall, not Timmons, but that he assumes Timmons “has some role in it” since she was the person “who was interrupted during her speech” on December 3. 

“I don’t know where the accountability rests, who’s making this decision. And that’s especially worrisome. I can only assume as the president, the buck stops with her, that she bears some responsibility for this.”

Rees says students shouldn’t have to hire lawyers to defend themselves against the university. 

“This is Memorial University, which belongs to all the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he says. “They have to be accountable to the public. 

“Whether it’s legal or illegal to impose these interim sanctions upon Matt Barter, they shouldn’t do it because it’s simply not right. And the university should know that.”

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Justin Brake (he/him) is an independent journalist from Newfoundland who currently lives on unceded Algonquin territory in Ottawa.