Nestled in a mid-sized city in southwestern Manitoba is Brandon University, home to about 3,500 students. With a communications team of two people, the university doesn’t tend to wade in on every municipal issue or controversy. But on May 9, as word spread through town that a delegation had asked the local public school division to remove books on sexual health and gender identity in public school libraries, the university’s administrators felt compelled to act.
“The community conversation was so loud, everybody was talking about it,” said Grant Hamilton, director of marketing and communications at Brandon U. “We knew that if we didn’t say something, our silence would be a statement on its own.”
Mr. Hamilton spoke to Brandon U president David Docherty about the school board meeting. They initially decided to draft a letter from Dr. Docherty to school division trustees, arguing that banning books goes against what educational institutions stand for, and emphasizing their role in sharing reliable information with the public.
When he brought what he thought was a “pretty good statement” to his boss, Dr. Docherty asked if the letter could be reframed in a more positive way that would help the community to “develop a path forward.” They also decided that the statement might be more powerful if it came directly from the institution.
After working on the headline, “Brandon University statement on call to remove books with gender, sexuality, and queer content from local schools,” with his team, Mr. Hamilton began a second draft of the statement. Frustrated with having to argue this issue – and with having to redo his work – he typed a single word in the body of the message: “Don’t.”
He took a screenshot of the document and emailed it to colleagues, hoping to clarify the conversation internally and to release some tension. “But the reaction was kind of like: this is it. This is what we should send out,” he said. “Why are we talking about the nuances of banning books? There is no nuance here.”
Response online and in the community
The press release, which was shared across Brandon U’s social media channels, quickly gained traction online, amassing hundreds of retweets, shares and comments on social media – the majority of which were positive – from people within and outside of the Brandon community. One local mother, Sam Walker, tagged the university in a post on her Facebook page in which she shares a letter written by her transgender daughter to the school trustees: “When Brandon University’s PR team came out with their statement, it meant so much to this kid,” wrote Ms. Walker. “She howled in approval, repeating it over and over: ‘Don’t.’”
— Brandon University (@BrandonUni) May 11, 2023
That single word became a rallying cry for Brandon’s 2SLGBTQ+ community, its allies and those opposing book bans in the lead-up to a second school division meeting on May 24. A delegation from Brandon U, which included Dr. Docherty, Mr. Hamilton, the university’s chief information officer and members of its queer committee, printed 150 “Don’t” signs and brought them to the meeting, where nearly 1,000 people had crammed into a high school gymnasium.
The meeting, which lasted over six and a half hours, had 30 speakers, only two of which supported the creation of a committee to review the books in question. Dr. Docherty, who spoke on behalf of the university, told the school trustees that his institution believes in “standing up against fear, disinformation and hate, and in demonstrating to students that they in turn will be supported in taking a stance for inclusion, for truth and for love.”
BU President Dr. David Docherty speaks to the Brandon School Division in support of books with gender, sexuality, and queer content.
“Don’t ban books. Do the right thing.” pic.twitter.com/Rlv7CqjZoE
— Brandon University (@BrandonUni) May 24, 2023
Speaking to University Affairs after the meeting, Dr. Docherty said it was important for Brandon U to take the unusual move to address the school district and take a public stance because universities, writ large, exist for the sharing of knowledge. “There is a debate around whether universities should stand for anything, or whether they should stand for everything – and that’s an interesting debate,” he said. “But when you’re talking about banning books, it’s pretty clear that you’re withholding knowledge from people – and universities don’t do that.”
Brandon U, said Dr. Docherty, is a place where all students should feel accepted and included, and that they have the necessary educational resources they need. “If students aren’t sure about their identity and are questioning it, they’re not going to be judged when they come to Brandon – they’re going to be welcomed, and that’s an important message for universities to share.”
The school division trustees voted 6-1 to shut down the call to review books. A “Don’t” sign and a “Don’t” button have since been added to the university’s archives, said Mr. Hamilton. “I don’t think I can say that about any other press release we’ve ever done,” he added.