A federal judge has ruled in favor of a student who passed out valentines to fellow students and staff featuring Bible verses with inspirational messages and was told by the taxpayer-funded state college, she must stop because she had defied school policy.
Last year, Polly Olsen, 29, was prevented by Northeast Wisconsin Technical College's (NWTC) security guards from handing out the religious-themed cards on Valentine's Day. She was told she was in violation of the school's public assembly policy, which forbids the "displaying of signs or mass distribution of literature with offensive content or that is likely to or intended to cause a disruption."
Someone had called security to complain and Olsen was told by one of the security officers that "some people could find the message on her Valentines offensive or could consider her actions as solicitation."
The "offensive" messages written on the valentines were:
- "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"
In September of 2018, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a lawsuit on behalf of Olsen against the school, claiming the NWTC had violated her First Amendment rights under the US Constitution. The school's attorneys tried to have the suit dismissed, arguing Olsen had "unclean hands" and also threatened the confidentiality of student records because she was handing out valentines near the general studies office on campus – even though there was no signage near the office indicating restricted access.
But in his summary order and judgment of 14-pages, United States Eastern District Court Chief Judge William Griesbach writes, "There can be no doubt that in handing out her home-made Valentines to her fellow students, friends, and staff at NWTC, Olsen was engaged in a constitutionally protected form of expression."
Griesbach ruled NWTC had violated Olsen's First Amendment rights by prohibiting her from handing out valentines on Feb. 14, 2018. The judge also said the school's speech policy was unconstitutional because it restricted students' freedom of expression to a tiny portion of the campus, and enjoined the school from enforcing the policy against students engaging in activity like Olsen's.
"This case was very simple. NWTC, through their Public Assembly Policy, sought to restrain and contain the First Amendment rights of students. That is, and always has been, unconstitutional," WILL President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg said in a press release. "We are pleased the Court agreed, and we are thankful to Polly Olsen for stepping up to defend not only her own rights, but the rights of all students."
Olsen says the lawsuit was never just about her.
"When my First Amendment rights were violated by NWTC, I knew I had to stand up for my rights," she said. "With the Court's decision, it is my hope that NWTC and colleges everywhere will work to expand and embrace, not constrict, the First Amendment rights of all students."
Last March, Olsen was invited by the White House to attend an executive order signing ceremony with President Trump concerning on campus free speech.