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Memorial University is retracting most of the restrictions placed on a student it banned from campus following a silent protest in December, according to the lawyer representing Matthew Barter.

Kyle Rees is legal counsel to Barter, the fourth year undergraduate student and advocate for accessible education who was banned from campus in early December—except to attend classes—after Barter silently protested MUNL President Vianne Timmons’ leadership. 

Rees says he received an email on Friday informing him MUNL would be lifting all parts of the ban but maintaining a provision that Barter not be allowed to visit Timmons’ office, pending the completion of an investigation into Barter’s conduct.

However, a leading expert on freedom of expression in Canada says MUNL’s apparent targeting of Barter represents a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“I think that disciplining a student—whether you ban them or discipline them in some other way—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,” says Jim Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at X University (formerly Ryerson) in Toronto.

On Dec. 2 Barter, who routinely reports and opines on the university’s administrative matters via his blog, stood silently at the front of a news conference while Timmons spoke. He held up a small red stop sign-shaped poster that read “Stop Vianne” and “No to tuition hikes and out of control spending”.

The following day MUNL banned Barter from campus except to attend classes, alleging a breach of the university’s student code of conduct. The university is not disclosing details of the allegation. An investigation is underway and could take months to complete. 

In a Dec. 15 letter to the university, Rees writes that six days after MUNL banned Barter from campus the university’s Chief Risk Officer Greg McDougall sent the student a letter alleging past patterns of behaviour, an escalation of reported incidents that began in 2018, and an alleged 20 incident reports.

“Of course, no action was taken against Mr. Barter in relation to these incidents, presumably because the University recognized that his actions were entirely in keeping with the principles of the Code,” Rees says in the letter, which Barter has shared on social media. “It is morally unjust and procedurally unfair to use supposed internally-documented incidents, of which Mr. Barter was neither informed nor provided an opportunity to respond to, to justify such a severe sanction as the removal from campus.”

Barter is not publicly sharing MUNL’s letters to him.

In the letters, MUNL “talked about a whole bunch of things over the past four years, some of which didn’t even happen at [MUNL], some of which happened in Ontario,” Rees explains in a phone interview. “In my view, it was sort of done to embarrass Matt, so we don’t want to share those letters because they talk about things that are just irrelevant in there that shouldn’t be public anyway.”

One alleged incident involved Barter being “outside of one of the administration offices and some employees felt unsafe,” says Rees, adding Barter has “never been criminally charged and as far as I know has never been investigated for his behaviour, he’s never been disciplined under the [MUNL] student code of conduct before, he’s never been subjected to any harassment investigations before.”

Barter says the university’s characterization of people feeling “unsafe” in his presence is “inaccurate and misleading.” He says he once visited former MUNL Provost and Vice President (Academic) Noreen Golfman’s office after Golfman “said publicly at a budget consultation session that she would meet regarding an issue that I brought up.” When he visited her office to request a meeting, Barter says he was told Golfman would not meet with him. He says he was “frustrated” at the time but “peaceful”.

“A violation of the Charter”

Turk says from what he can tell of Barter’s Dec. 2 protest, which precipitated the campus ban, Barter “engaged in what’s recognized in Canada as legitimate freedom of expression.

“He didn’t halt Timmons’ talk, he didn’t disrupt it—he had a silent protest. That is certainly a form of expression that is protected by our charter. And the university disciplining a student for doing that, I would argue, is a violation of the charter.”

Turk says universities “depend on freedom of discourse in order to educate students and in order to advance knowledge, and trying to deny a student their protest rights because he’s challenging the administration is wholly inappropriate.”

In recent months Barter has written critically about the university’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its spending practices, and its silencing of student dissent. He has also published photo essays depicting decaying and damaged infrastructure on the St. John’s campus.

“He was a journalist on campus,” says Rees. “He wasn’t with [campus radio station] CHMR or [digital newspaper] The Muse, but he has run his own blog which publishes a substantial amount of content.”

Rees says while Barter doesn’t work as a paid journalist, “he was still fulfilling a valuable service” that for more than a month has been hampered by his banishment from campus.

“It should be noted that with the lack of a weekly campus newspaper since The Muse became a digital-only publication, Mr. Barter is one of the only sources that Memorial students can refer to when they want information on University administration,” Rees writes in his letter to MUN. “Banning Mr. Barter from campus represents an attack on journalism and the free press.”

Katherine McLaughlin, the Newfoundland and Labrador chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, says it’s “very unusual and concerning to see the way that it seems the university is leveraging the student code of conduct in a way that is blocking not just a student from campus, but blocking a voice of dissent to their administration from being present on campus.”

MUNL’s student code of conduct prohibits various forms of disruption but explicitly states that “silent or symbolic protest” does not qualify as such.

Turk says he has seen universities take action against students who during protests “have set off fire alarms, they bring proceedings to a halt, they cut off the electricity to the sound system or otherwise disrupt the event and make it impossible for those who want to hear and participate to do so. But he did none of those things. He simply was engaging in what’s recognized as a legitimate protest in this country.”

One of the ‘Resign’ posters removed by university staff in Fall 2021. (Photo via Matt Barter.)

Pattern of silencing dissent: MUNSU

Hilary Hennessey, MUNL Student Union’s (MUNSU) director of external affairs, says the university’s response to Barter’s protest is the latest attempt to silence dissent.

Last June the university removed posters and other materials MUNSU had placed around campus as part of its ‘education is a right’ campaign.

“Within hours they were taken down, so we felt as if we were being silenced at that time and had spoken with the university about it,” Hennessey recalls. “They sincerely apologized and said they would make sure it doesn’t happen again.” 

The following month, MUNL announced it will end its decades-long tuition freeze and more than double tuition fees. The announcement happened behind closed doors, with campus police guarding the building, McLaughlin recalls.

“I feel like the administration has been kind of trying to go beyond what’s been done in the past to block dissent,” she says, recalling the July announcement. “I was there with a few other students to hear the press conference. We wanted to be there for the announcement. It wasn’t a large crowd, there weren’t signs or elements of protest that we’ve seen in different spaces. We were just there as a few students to hear the press conference, and we weren’t allowed into that space, we were blocked by enforcement police.”

When the academic year began in September and students returned to campus, Barter put up a series of posters calling for Timmons’ resignation. They read “Resign!” at the top and featured a picture of Timmons along with the words “No to tuition hikes!”

Timmons directed staff to remove the posters. She told CBC she felt the posters crossed the line from legitimate protest to a violation of MUNL’s respectful workplace policy. 

“I wanted to make a statement that this was an important place where everyone needed to feel welcome and part of our community,” she said in the Sept. 22 interview, adding “[w]e need to honour differing views, but that doesn’t mean you personalize something.”

Rees says Barter is “not just some random person who hated Vianne Timmons and decided he was going to stand up in the middle of a room. He has a long history of objecting to university policy, being from Vianne Timmons or anyone else. He was no kinder to [former MUNL President] Gary Kachanoski during his tenure—he was equally as critical.” 

MUNFA, the university’s faculty union, has also expressed concern following Barter’s ban from campus, saying in a Dec. 17 post on its website that while it “cannot offer comment directly on Mr. Barter’s situation as we are not privy to the specifics of the complaint […] as more information enters the public realm MUNFA’s concerns grow with respect to the administration’s approach to student protest and criticism of university policies.”

Given the university’s repeated removal of posters, and now its action against Barter, Hennessey says students “feel as if we are being silenced, and challenged in a way that makes expressing ourselves and fighting for students’ rights quite challenging.”

In an email to The Independent on Friday afternoon a MUNL spokesperson said “there have not yet been any agreed upon modifications” to Barter’s ban from campus and did not confirm the university’s communication to Rees.

“Memorial unequivocally supports the right of students to protest. No student has been disciplined for protesting,” Meghan Whelan, MUNL’s acting associate director of communications, said in the email. “However, student behaviour that infringes on the rights, responsibilities, wellbeing and dignity of members of the Memorial community must be addressed.”

Rees says the university “can’t just sit back over the course of two years and let a person campaign against the university administration, and then all of a sudden when they do something that particularly irks the administration, drag up all these things as culminating events or something.

“You can’t do that at law, and even if we’re not within legal territory at the university—just quasi-legal—it’s still illogical to do that,” he says.

Rees says he’s confident there won’t be a finding of harassment against Barter, and that “we’ll be looking to [MUNL] for an apology or a payment of legal fees, or both.”

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