Last year, the University of Northern Colorado hung 680 #languagematters posters around campus, warning students against words and phrases deemed offensive. “Words are connected to a long and often forgotten history of oppression and people,” one poster said. “Language matters because, whether it is intentional or not, the impact of words can reinforce oppression and feelings of discomfort, fear and shame,” another said.
Katrina Rodriguez, dean of students and Title IX coordinator at UNC, says the posters, along with table tents and a banner, cost about $600 and were “created to provide a voice to student experiences and encourage reflection and dialogue about the impact of language on others.”
She said that equating them to censorship or an attack on free speech is “a flawed premise.”
“The intent is to educate to foster civility—not to take punitive action,” Rodriguez told Heat Street by email. “The process itself facilitates conversations between campus and community members to build understanding. It’s awareness about being mindful about how words can affect others and the conversations provide an opportunity for individuals to understand why particular language may be hurtful to someone else in our community of learners. We believe that fostering dialogue on a college campus so that multiple perspectives are explored and debated is the essence of free speech.”
In addition to pointing out what language could “impact our community,” many of the posters urged students and staff to report any “bias related incident” they experience or witness.
UNC’s students apparently took note — and even reported commentary written on the posters in response as a bias-related incident.
According to incident reports reviewed by Heat Street, in March and April, unnamed sources contacted the Bias Response Team to report the vandalism of a poster in support of Black Lives Matter.
“When you say ‘all lives matter’ … You are dismissing the Black Lives Matter movement and the brutality impacting the Black community,” the original poster said. It’s unclear from the redacted reports how the poster was altered in March. In April, someone wrote “all lives do matter” and “free speech matters” on the poster, prompting the Bias Response Team to take swift action.
In both incidents, the team took down the poster, replacing it with another that proclaimed, “This was the site of a bias related behavior.”
Despite the tone and message of the replacement posters, Rodriguez said that it is a “mischaracterization” to assume that UNC’s stance is that saying “all lives do matter” and “free speech matters” amounts to “hateful speech.”
According to the March incident report, in addition to the replacement poster, an open letter was also sent to the UNC community regarding the defaced poster, and the Bias Response Team also “contacted Dean’s office about cameras in staircase.”
More of the Bias Response Team’s posters are below.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum and the Steamboat Institute.