Suit claims college’s free speech policy is unconstitutional
Polly Olsen has handed out “Jesus Loves You” Valentine’s Day cards on the campus of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College for years. But the college’s recent attempts to block her from distributing them prompted her to file a lawsuit alleging that the college is unconstitutionally restricting her First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit claims that the college’s free speech zone policy restricts “expressive activities to a tiny portion of campus, requiring prior approval even within that tiny area, and arrogating to administrators unfettered discretion as to whether to confer that approval.”
Olsen told The College Fix in a phone interview that she started handing out Valentine’s Day cards on campus in 2009 as a part-time student. The valentines included messages like “Smile, God loves you! John 3:16,” “You are beautiful! Romans 5:8” and “Jesus Loves You!”
The 29-year-old Green Bay resident and paralegal student said that, over the years, many people have reacted with pleasure and thanks to her Valentine’s Day cards. Distributing them was a tradition she and her mother had followed since she was young, handing them out at nursing homes and hospitals.
But when Olsen began handing out the cards in February of this year, the experience took on a sour note.
Olsen told The Fix that she was handing out the Valentine’s Day cards for about 15 minutes before she was stopped by campus security. The officer allegedly informed her that handing out the valentines constituted “soliciting,” although as the lawsuit points out, she was not selling the valentines or asking for anything in return, and recipients were free to refuse them.
She was taken to the security office where officials accused her of being a disruptive student, and also told her some people may be offended by a Valentine’s Day card that says “Jesus Loves You,” the suit alleges.
She was also told that, according to school policy, students can only hand out literature or petitions in the so-called free speech zone on campus that Northeast Wisconsin Technical College call its “public assembly area.”
“The public assembly area may be reserved between the hours of 8:00 AM and 9:00 PM for up to 3 consecutive days,” according to campus policy. Olsen described the zone as “about the size of two buses next to each other.”
A few years ago, Olsen’s Valentine’s Day efforts also drew the ire of campus officials, but at the time they complained about the content of the messages as opposed to where she was distributing them, she told The Fix.
“The first time I was stopped and told that it was because of the content of my valentines that I was not allowed to hand them out by the supervisor of security,” she said. “Then they passed me around the school from person to person and no one wanted to deal with the issue of discrimination.”
The lawsuit argues that as a public university, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College cannot “legally declare the vast majority of campus to be a ‘non-public forum.’” It seeks to have the court declare the college’s public assembly area policy unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, officials at the school have responded to the lawsuit, stating they respect the First Amendment. In a statement, administrators say the public assembly area policy “establishes space at NWTC where picketing and mass distribution of literature can occur freely without interfering with students and the business operation of the College.”
The college’s statement adds that they sent security after Olsen because she was handing out her cards outside its public assembly area and officers were “responding to a call.” It concludes by explaining that the college is actively reviewing its free speech policy, a process launched in October 2017, and has invited Olsen to participate.
The effort will go through a student review and comment period and will be published in mid-October, Karen Smits, vice president for college advancement, told The College Fix in an email.
Smits also wrote that “there are more areas of the college designated as ‘Public Assembly Areas’ in the updated policy,” and added Olsen “was stopped by security in an area not for the public. Had she been holding anything else—or nothing—she would still have prompted a call to security.”
The lawsuit claims she had visited that non-student area many times without being invited and it was never an issue.
For her part, Olsen expressed to The Fix that she felt her constitutional rights had been infringed and that she was very stressed by the experience. But she also said she is grateful for the teachers in her program and wants to continue there.
“I love my school,” she said. “Freedom and God come first.”
IMAGE: Polly Olsen