, , , ,

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

Suit Against College Alleges Free Speech Violations

Valentines Day cards
Patty Murray/WPR

What started as a student’s attempt to hand out inspirational religious Valentine’s Day cards to her Northeast Wisconsin Technical College classmates has turned into a federal lawsuit against the school.

Polly Olsen. Patty Murray/WPR

Polly Olsen says giving out handmade, heart-shaped Valentines with Bible verses is a tradition that she’s carried on from her late mother. But when she tried to distribute them on campus in February, security officials stopped her, saying that because she was outside the campus “public assembly area,” she was violating school policy.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

In return, Olsen’s lawsuit argues the college violated her right to free speech.

On the steps of the federal courthouse in Green Bay on Wednesday, Olsen, a paralegal student, said her construction paper hearts with messages like “Jesus loves you” and “You are cared for” weren’t meant to offend anybody, but “within about 15 minutes of being on campus, security was called.”

She said she has handed out similar Valentines on campus for at least four years in the past.

Olsen is being represented by the conservative advocacy group Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which filed suit this week in U.S. district court.

Rick Esenberg, WILL’s general counsel and president, told reporters Wednesday that he believes the school has effectively established a “free speech zone” that hampers free discourse.

“Because (of) the breadth of things that are prohibited elsewhere on the campus, that can only happen in the ‘public assembly area,’” he said. “So, this is the only place where you can reach out and try to communicate ideas to your fellow students.”

Karen Smits, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College vice president of college advancement, said the school has is in the process of revising its public assembly policy and said the review has been going on since October 2017.

When a revised policy is approved, it will be in place for NWTC as well as colleges in Marinette, Sturgeon Bay and at five regional learning centers.

Smits said restrictions, such as those on handing out materials, are to protect student and staff privacy “in order to have a space where learning is not interrupted, but also that the confidentiality and the privacy of our students is maintained. We have spaces for students to be able to have this public assembly.”

In a written statement the school indicated that the public assembly policy is in place because schools are not the same as a public park and that “the law recognizes that … not all physical areas of educational institutions are open for public assembly.”

Currently, NWTC has one assembly area.

Smits said the school hasn’t yet been served with the federal suit but that it has retained the services of a private attorney.