On September 16th, 2021, Memorial University of Newfoundland President Vianne Timmons finally answered media requests after ignoring them for a week. Timmons took part in a segment on CBC Ted Blades’s show “On The Go.” CBC titled the episode “Free speech has limits at Memorial University,” and their description states, “MUN president Vianne Timmons tells us why a student’s posters were torn down.” Below is a transcript of the episode:
Ted Blades: Our first interview today is a follow-up to a story we brought you last week. The story started when Matt Barter, who’s a fourth-year student at Memorial, went around the St. John’s Campus putting up posters calling on MUN’s President Vianne Timmons to resign because she approved recent tuition hikes at Memorial. Shortly after the posters went up, Mr. Barter recorded some cellphone video of a university staff member tearing those posters down. He sent it to us. Here’s a bit of that audio:
Staff member: Please turn your camera off, or I’ll have security here right now.
Matt Barter: Why are you taking down posters?
Staff member: I’m on the phone with security, so they’ll be here.
TB: Well, Matt Barter told us that tearing down those posters violates his freedom of speech, and here’s a brief excerpt from an interview last week.
MB: What I’ve been told is that the MUN maintenance staff been told by their supervisors, who’s been told by the higher-ups, that there’s not allowed to be any political posters up at MUN. Some people may consider it political; some people may not consider it political, but my biggest issue with it is freedom of expression. Students should be allowed to put up posters about causes that they believe in.
TB: And we tried to get an interview with the President of Memorial University to respond to Mr. Barter’s concerns. We weren’t able to make that happen until now. Vianne Timmons is on the line. Good afternoon, ma’am.
Vianne Timmons: Hello, how are you, Ted?
TB: Not too bad. So, tell me, why did university staff tear those posters down?
VT: So, the posters were taken down because we have a respectful workplace policy. And if there were posters on our campus that faculty, staff, or students felt were offensive and made them feel uncomfortable in the workplace, I would ask them to be taken down, and so as you know, I think Ted, I don’t know if we’ve chatted, but you know that myself and the Provost have had some pretty nasty social media attacks and I decided that we are a respectful workplace on this campus and I wanted to make a statement that this was an important place where everyone needed to feel welcome and part of our community.
TB: So, were you involved in the decision? Who gave the order to take the posters down?
VT: I did.
TB: You did?
VT: Yes, I did.
TB: Now, some people listening to us would say that this is not a dispute between equals, that you’re in a position of power and that you shouldn’t be bothered let lone offended by a student who’s passionate about his views on tuition. What would you say to them?
VT: I would say absolutely students who are passionate about their views on tuition should protest. They should put posters up, and I would encourage, and I have I spoke to the student union and said I absolutely support posters or protests, but I don’t support personal attacks or personalizing an issue. We’re a university we need to model respectful debate, respectful discussions; we need to honor differing views, but that doesn’t mean you personalize something, and so I had many phone calls from students, from our community, upset about the posters and you know I waited and then I thought I wouldn’t allow a poster to be up for a faculty, a staff, or a student that attacked them or was personal to them, and so I wanted to make a statement that I will honor our respectful workplace policy and that is critical here. So, you know the tuition increase is a university policy, it’s not a personal decision, and so it’s important that our community feels comfortable at the place of work.
TB: So, if he said the decision to raise is wrong or it needs to be reversed, they will still be there? Because he said that you need to resign, you ordered them down?
VT: Absolutely, if there were posters up that were not personal and that were issue-focused and that were respectful, that would be fine.
TB: I can’t help but wonder whether some of this is personal on another level because I know that back in February of 2020, Matt Barter got a lot of media attention when he was complaining quite loudly about your compensation package.
VT: Absolutely not. We have a respectful workplace policy. My job as a president and as a leader on this campus is to role model and honor that, and that is what I do and will continue to do. I’ve spoken to the student union about it and had a wonderful discussion with them. They recognized the importance of being able to have a voice, and I encourage that.
TB: You said you had many students contact you upset about the poster. Roughly, how many?
VT: I had students contact me, faculty and staff contact me. Probably total, there would have been over 20 people who contacted me about the posters.
TB: Alright, so you told us that posters that personalize an issue aren’t allowed up; how do you describe, how does the university describe, the limits of free speech on campus then?
VT: I encourage free speech. I encourage respectful debate. I encourage having different views. But a university campus is a place where we’re a teaching institution, we need to teach our students and work with our students to show how to do that respectfully and how to do it where people are voices are able to be welcomed and supported and that when people walk around campus, it’s not a place where somebody is targeted personally, and that is an important thing for a university. Of all of the places, this is a place where we absolutely encourage free speech. We encourage respectful debate. We encourage different opinions. That is what a university does.
TB: If someone’s sense of free speech, including Mr. Barter’s, is that you should resign. What’s the format for expressing that kind of free speech?
VT: Absolutely, send me a note to tell me that I should resign, and that is fine but to put posters with someone’s face all over the campus with the word “resign” on it, if that was a faculty member, if there was a poster of a student with, you know, a “get out of here” or a “quit school,” we wouldn’t allow that to be up. If there was a poster of a student plastered all over our campus with, you know, “quit” school, we would take it down. That student should not have to walk around campus and face that in the corridor or on the polls. That is not acceptable, nor would I allow it for a faculty member or a staff member. Everybody on this campus should feel that when they walk around this campus, they shouldn’t face something that makes them feel personally attacked, and so I’m role modeling what I would expect to do for others.
TB: So, your bottom line here is, and I don’t have to put words in your mouth because I think you’ve already said it is that group of people who should feel safe to walk around without being personally attacked includes you?
VT: Yes, and you know for me to do is a statement as much as getting those posters down because it’s me, it’s a statement to my community here that I’m going to stand up, and I will fight for each and every one of them. And I want them to feel safe and know that we will honor our respectful workplace policy as we should.
TB: Alright, we’ll leave it here for today. I want to thank you for your time.
VT: Thank you, Ted. Thank you very much.
TB: That is Vianne Timmons, she is President of Memorial University. Well, what do you make of her explanation?
Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.