Polly Olsen is suing Northeast Wisconsin Technical College after being labeled “disruptive” for passing out Christian-themed valentines outside her school’s free-speech zone.
On February 14, 2018, Olsen said she walked around campus and handed out valentines that said “Jesus Loves You! Romans 5:8,” “You are special! 1 John 4:11,” “God is love John 4:11,” and “You are loved and cared for! 1 Peter 5:7.” About fifteen minutes in, she said a campus security guard told her that she was breaking school policy for “soliciting,” despite handing out the valentines for free.
In an interview with The Daily Wire, Olsen said she asked the security officer why she could not hand out the valentines, and he told her it was because the content may be found to be offensive.
Later, she said she had a meeting with the school’s director of diversity that confirmed the policy to her.
Olsen said most people she gave the valentines to reacted positively. “Everyone said thank you,” she said. “The only person that refused [a valentine] was the security guard and that is because he was doing his job.”
The Wisconsin Institute for Liberty and Law, the organization representing Olsen, alleges that the school’s Public Assembly Policy is “unconstitutional.”
According to the lawsuit, NWTC restricts students’ “expressive activities to a tiny portion of campus, requiring prior approval even within that tiny area.” The lawsuit claims this area is less than 0.5% of campus. According to Campus Reform, students must reserve the zone in advance and may only use it between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. and may do so for only three consecutive days. Olsen says the zone is where students do not congregate, making interacting with other students difficult.
The lawsuit also alleges that the restrictions were applied “based upon the viewpoint expressed by the Plaintiff” and that Olsen was told she was “(possibly) disturbing the learning environment.” The lawsuit refutes this and states that she did not hand out the valentines “during any class, in the library, or in any area where students were in a learning environment.”
Olsen also said she handed out similar valentines in 2014 but was also told by campus security that she must stop.
NWTC Vice President of Advancement, Karen Smits, told Campus Reform that “free speech is exercised every day in many different contexts all over the NWTC campus,” and that the “policy deals with ‘public assembly’ as the law recognizes that, unlike a public park, not all physical areas of educational institutions are open for ‘public assembly.'”
Olsen said passing out Christian-themed valentines is a tradition she has partaken in with her mother since she was a little girl at hospitals and nursing homes. After her mother died five years ago, she said she continued this tradition on her campus in her mother’s memory.
“I hand them out because of the love that God has shown me, and without that love, I wouldn’t be here because of going through losing people,” Olsen said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without Jesus, and I want others who face desperate situations to know that love and that someone cares.”
Casey Mattox, a Senior Fellow for Free Speech and Toleration at the Charles Koch Institute who has been involved with more than fifty cases related to free speech on campuses, called the school’s actions “an egregious violation of First Amendment rights.”
“The law is very clear here,” Mattox said in an interview. “Public colleges can’t tell students when and where they can speak on their own public college campus, and they certainly can’t require them to get advanced permission to speak. It’s a clear violation of the First Amendment, and it is likely the court will end up finding that here.”
Mattox also said that policies such as the ones Olsen is battling are “troubling” because they “communicate to students that your First Amendment rights only extend as far as the college wants them to extend … that’s not how it works in our system.”
Mattox encourages other students to “be aware of what your free speech policies are on your campus, take them up with your school and try to get those policies corrected. Even when they aren’t being enforced against you, it is important to leave your campus more free for those who come after you. Often times you can talk to your college and have them fix these. I think it would be good for all students to take these sorts of violations seriously and work to see these kinds of policies changes on your campus.”