Free Speech on Campus graphic

Student, prevented from distributing religious valentines, files lawsuit — September 2018

Green Bay, Wisconsin

On Valentine’s Day in February 2018, Polly Olsen, a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), sought to continue a family tradition of passing out heart-shaped Valentine cards with Bible verses to friends and college staff members. When she got to campus that day and began distributing the cards, she was stopped by a security officer for “suspicious behavior.” According to the officer, because Olsen was outside of the campus “Public Assembly Area,” she was violating campus policy. Olsen filed a lawsuit in federal court on September 4, 2018, claiming that by preventing her from passing out the Valentines, the college violated her right to freedom of speech and expression.

Key Players

Polly Olsen is a 29-year old student at NWTC, where she is studying to be a paralegal. Her late mother began the tradition of passing out Valentine cards with religious messages while she was home-schooling Olsen and her siblings. Olsen says she has passed out Valentines on campus for at least four years.

Karen Smits is the vice president for college advancement at NWTC. She has been in the process of reviewing and revising NWTC’s “Public Assembly Policy” since 2017. The policy denotes the permitted areas for students and faculty to assemble that do not “interfere with the education of students and the College’s work.” It says that public assembly, picketing, and displaying signs must occur in the designated “Public Assembly Area,” and that anyone choosing to do these things must receive advance approval from campus administrators.

Rick Esenberg, of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, filed the federal lawsuit in Green Bay on behalf of Olsen.

Further Details

Olsen had been passing out Valentines with religious messages for about 15 minutes on February 14, 2018, when a campus security officer stopped her, according to the lawsuit. The Valentine cards included messages such as “You are special! 1 John 4:11,” “God is love! 1 John 4:11,” “Jesus Loves you! Romans 5:8,” and “You are loved and cared for! 1 Peter 5:7,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The officer who confronted Olsen told her she was violating school policy by not confining her activity to the designated area. According to the lawsuit, she was then sent to the campus security office to speak with the security coordinator, who allegedly told her that other members of the college community might find her religious messages offensive. The coordinator, according to The Journal Sentinel, also said Olsen was “disturbing the learning environment and walking into an area that is restricted to students without being invited or announced” — the General Studies Office in the student union.

The lawsuit complains that the Public Assembly Policy at NWTC “has effectively deemed all remaining indoor and outdoor areas of campus, outside the prescribed Public Assembly Area, as non-public forums off-limits for student speech and expression.” The suit also claims that “there is nothing under Wisconsin law or the rules of NWTC which would make handing out Valentine’s Day cards with Bible references illegal or constitute ‘suspicious activity’ or make the female student handing out such Valentines on Valentine’s Day a ‘suspicious person.’” Olsen asks that the court declare the Public Assembly Policy an unconstitutional restriction of free speech and expression, due to its “over-broad and vague” language.

Smits has said that she invited Olsen to participate in revising the policy to include a student perspective, but, to protect Olsen’s privacy, she would not comment on “student conduct.” She released a statement to the college community on September 5, defending the policy and reaffirming NWTC’s commitment to free speech. “The student was stopped by Security in an area that is not for the public,” the statement read. “Had she been holding anything else—or nothing—she would still have prompted a call to Security.” Smits said the policy applies on campus, because “unlike a public park, not all physical areas of educational institutions are open for public assembly.” .

Olsen noted that when she passed out the Valentines, everybody was free to decline them. According to the lawsuit, the security officer who stopped her was the only individual to do so.

Outcome

College retains private attorney to handle lawsuit

On September 5, 2018, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed a federal lawsuit against NWTC for restricting free speech on campus. The college has retained a private attorney to defend it.

Lawsuit requests award for “nominal damages”

In addition to asking the court to declare the policy unconstitutional, the lawsuit seeks “nominal damages” to help Olsen cover attorneys’ fees and other expenses. It also urges NWTC to stop applying the Public Assembly Policy to students and visitors.

External References

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Student Hands Out Lawsuit Over Valentine’s Day Cards, Wisconsin Public Radio

Polly Olsen lawsuit

Public Assembly Policy

Public Assembly policy reflects right to assemble and federal policy law, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College

Valentines with Bible verses at heart of free speech lawsuit student filed against college, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Prepared by Erin Doherty ‘20

Uploaded to tracker October 22, 2018