The Memorial University student who has faced disciplinary action after holding a silent protest last December is now taking the university to court.
Matthew Barter, a 25-year-old political science undergrad and activist, filed an application with the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador Tuesday asking the court to quash Memorial’s decision to place him on non-academic probation for one year and require him to attend a seminar on bullying and harassment.
The court document, filed by Barter’s lawyer Kyle Rees, reveals for the first time new details surrounding Memorial’s response to an external investigation into Barter’s December 2 protest at a joint university-government announcement—and into an alleged pattern of problematic behaviour from Barter the university is using to justify its sanctions against him.
In a February 28 report, the St. John’s lawyer who conducted the investigation upheld the university’s position that Barter had violated sections of Memorial’s student code of conduct that prohibit bullying and harassment, and the disruption of events.
Kim Horwood noted, however, that it was unclear whether the rules had been fairly applied to Barter, and that she believes Barter did not intend to violate the code in the course of his protest. She recommended that the university lift its sanctions against Barter, which had included a ban from parts of campus and a requirement to report to security when he arrived on campus to attend classes. During the investigation the university lifted some of the measures but continued to prohibit Barter from attending extracurricular activities.
Horwood recommended that Memorial require Barter to refrain from personal attacks in future and to refrain from protesting “inside any class, meeting or event.”
During his December 2 protest against what he has characterized as Memorial President Vianne Timmons’ fiscal mismanagement of the university, Barter affixed a small paper stop sign-like poster that read “Stop Vianne” and “no to tuition hikes and out of control spending” to the front of the podium where Timmons was speaking. Without saying anything, and wearing a non-medical safety mask, he then stood a few feet to Timmons’ left and held up an identical sign.
Memorial Director of Student Life Jennifer Browne, in a March 18 letter to Barter, justified the new sanctions against Barter in part due to “the nature of the complaints, the impact of the conduct on others, your past Code violations, and your behaviour during and after the investigation.” Barter appealed the decision internally but the person tasked with adjudicating the appeal, then-Marine Institute Registrar Leslie Noftall, upheld Browne’s conclusions.
However, former MUNL Provost and Vice President (Academic) Noreen Golfman, herself a subject of Barter’s past protests, is speaking out in the student’s defense.
“I think this is a real overreach here,” Golfman told The Independent in a phone interview Thursday.
Barter, a former executive member of the university’s student union and an active blogger who is routinely critical of the administration’s fiscal management of the university, maintains the university is targeting him because it doesn’t like his messages or methods of protest, and that the effort to silence him is an attack on his Charter right of freedom of expression.
Though Barter’s application to the court doesn’t explicitly invoke Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Rees says that since Memorial’s student code of conduct makes an exception for peaceful demonstrations and silent or symbolic protest, “we will be suggesting that the administration failed to interpret that correctly in light of Charter principles.”
Memorial alleges “patterns of behaviour”
In his written complaint to Browne on December 8, McDougall describes patterns of behaviour he says include targeting “senior female leadership and other employees of the University; a history of aggression, intimidation […]; and despite repeated warnings to him, his refusal to change his actions.” McDougall says those patterns “suggest his actions can be volatile and unpredictable, and which have led individuals within the Memorial community to feel threatened in the workplace.”
McDougall cites incidents dating back to 2018, including “conversations at the Provost’s Office in which panic buttons were deployed for fear of personal safety by female office staff, and to which Campus Enforcement and Patrol had to respond.”
Barter previously told The Independent that Golfman had agreed during a public budget consultation that she would meet with him to discuss concerns he had about the university’s fiscal management. When he later attended her office to request the meeting, Barter says he was told she would not meet with him. He said he was “frustrated” at the time but “peaceful” in his interactions.
On Thursday Golfman disputed Memorial’s characterization of Barter as deliberately targeting women.
“I just don’t buy it,” she said, explaining she never once felt Barter’s protests against her as a senior administrator were personal or that they had a sexist or misogynistic element. “I just never felt that,” she said. Golfman noted that much of Barter and the Memorial student union’s attention at the time was focused on the salaries of senior administrators, including then-President Gary Kachanoski. “He was a kind of equal opportunity activist as far as I was concerned.”
During the budget consultation in question, Golfman said Barter interrupted her and disrupted the meeting. “I knew where he was coming from, but I didn’t personally feel threatened by him. It was for me more annoyance and frustration.”
She said that when she arrived at her office the following morning she shared her frustration with some of her staff about Barter’s behaviour during the consultation. Then, when Barter arrived at her office unannounced to request the meeting, Golfman said she was already in another meeting. While she can’t speak for how her staff felt at the time, she said Barter’s “unconventional route of just showing up and demanding to see me then […] I think that kind of freaked them out,” she explained.
“I think they were thrown off guard or unnerved by him just showing up, which is kind of not the way that they’re used to.”
Barter says his previous code of conduct violation is in relation to a 2017 dispute between him and another former student union executive member, which led to the resignation of the other student from the union. The two filed complaints against each other, and documents reviewed by The Independent confirm that both were found to be in violation of the code for “bullying, intimidating or harassing another person.”
The documents show that Barter’s sanction included working with a counselor “in the areas of effective communication and conflict resolution,” while the other individual was required to apologize to Barter “for disclosing personal information regarding his disability on social media” and to remove the post.
Barter is on the autism spectrum. He says that in response to the student code violation he attended the session with a counselor and the two spoke about autism and effective communication. He says he doesn’t recall any element of the conversation related to gender, and that he “left feeling it was worthwhile.”
In a post published to his blog in March, Barter accuses the university of trying to present him “as ‘dangerous’ and ‘unhinged’ without any supporting facts. These are disablist stereotypes and could have a chilling effect on other students with disabilities participating in protest actions on campus.”
The line between protest and harassment
Barter argues in his court application that while Browne, Horwood and Noftall, all of whom are named in the filing, based their judgements in part on McDougall’s references to past incidents, no evidence was provided in relation to the incidents referenced by McDougall in his complaint. As a result, Barter had no opportunity to address them.
They also identify what they say are two dozen other errors made in the complaint, investigation and sanctioning processes. Among those errors, they claim, Horwood and Browne “attached an unreasonable amount of significance to a single witness’ subjective experience” about how they were impacted by Barter’s December 2 protest, while Horwood failed to consider interviewees Barter offered to propose and instead interviewed those suggested by the university.
During the investigation, Deneice Falconer, an employee of the university who was present at the December 2 announcement testified that she was “panicked” and “shocked” that Barter put the sign on the podium, and that she felt Barter’s “attack” on Timmons was personal and disrespectful. Because she didn’t know Barter, she said she “was quite alarmed and had no idea what this stranger might do next,” Horwood writes in her report.
Explaining her finding that Barter violated the code where it prohibits disruption of events, Horwood says the “degree of discomfort” that employee felt during Barter’s protest “is an indication that Barter substantially interfered with the purpose of the event.”
The Independent reached out to Falconer for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Leading civil liberties experts have suggested that Memorial’s treatment of Barter could represent an infringement of his charter rights.
“Effective protest always makes people feel uncomfortable,” Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Free Expression Director Jim Turk said in a recent interview. “It’s when that protest crosses the line and inflicts bodily harm on them or prevents people from speaking or people from hearing that it crosses the line at the university. But he did none of those things.”
Golfman said she was contacted by Horwood and asked if she would be willing to speak with her for the investigation. Golfman responded affirmatively, but then was never summoned for an interview. She said she agrees with Turk’s point that protests are intended to make people uncomfortable.
The Independent asked Memorial University for comment in response to Barter’s court challenge.
“This matter is now with the university lawyers and will be dealt with accordingly. That’s all we have to say right now,” David Sorensen, Memorial’s manager of communications, responded in an email.
Barter says he wants the sanctions reversed because they could hurt him and any future opportunities he may otherwise have.
“But it’s also about the principle of protest and freedom of expression,” he adds, “and how it can set a precedent and make it difficult for students to protest.”
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