Judge rules NWTC violated student's First Amendment rights in valentines case

Published: Sep. 16, 2019 at 11:22 AM CDT
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A federal judge has ruled in favor of a Northeast Wisconsin Technical College student in her Freedom of Speech lawsuit involving Valentine's Day cards with religious messages.

On Sept. 13, Chief Judge William C. Griesbach of the Eastern District of Wisconsin declared that NWTC violated Polly Olsen's First Amendment rights.

"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. Olsen's conduct bears some resemblance to “handbilling” which has been defined as “the practice of offering written material—be it handbills, pamphlets, tracts, advertisements, booklets, notices or other information—to individuals in public places for their acceptance or rejection," reads Hon. Griesbach's ruling.

He continues, "As an initial matter, Olsen did not need a public forum in order to lawfully convey her messages. While Olsen’s conduct bears some similarity to handbilling, it was not handbilling in the traditional sense. Traditional handbilling refers to handing out the same written material to members of the public in general, such as a pamphlet, advertisement, booklet, or campaign material. Each of the Valentines Olsen handed out, however, had a different message directed not to the public in general but to the person to whom she gave the Valentine."

Olsen will receive $1 in damages. Olsen said the suit was not about money, but protecting Freedom of Speech.

“While this lawsuit was personal, it was never just about me. When my First Amendment rights were violated by NWTC, I knew I had to stand up for my rights. 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," says Olsen.

Olsen and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the lawsuit. On Feb. 14, 2018, Olsen was handing out valentines to students and staff on campus and was stopped by campus security. They told Olsen that she was violating NWTC's Public Assembly Policy.

The valentines included messages and referenced Bible verses. One valentine said "You are special! 1 John 4:11"; another said "Jesus Loves You!"

Someone called security to complain.

"When she attempted to do this, security forces were dispatched to apprehend her and tell her that she was speaking outside of the approved area, an area which she could only speak in if she got advanced permission," said Rick Esenberg, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Hon. Griesbach says there were no signs or indications in these areas of campus that students needed permission to hand out literature.

"Olsen estimates that, in total, she delivered approximately thirty Valentines in various areas of the central complex of the campus’ interconnected buildings. At no time did Olsen sell Valentines, ask anyone for anything as a condition for accepting the Valentines, or force the Valentines on any person who did not wish to take one or entreat anyone who declined to accept it," reads Griesbach's ruling.

Olsen maintained that the policy restricted her First Amendment rights, but "NWTC’s counsel maintained that the Public Assembly Policy was constitutional and that NWTC’s enforcement of the Policy on February 14, 2018 was lawful."

That's when Olsen moved forward with the federal lawsuit.

NWTC has since revised its

The school tried to argue that the lawsuit was moot.

"NWTC first argues that Olsen’s case is moot because NWTC changed the policy under which she was prevented from handing out Valentines. A claim is moot when it no longer involves an actual and ongoing controversy," says Hon. Griesbach.

Griesbach says, "The fact that one person anonymously complained about the message does not rob her of her right to convey her message to others who willingly accepted it.

"No one, including the complainer, was forced to accept Olsen’s offer of a Valentine; he or she could have simply said “no thank you” or promptly placed it in a trash receptacle. NWTC had no more right to prevent her from handing out individual Valentines than it did to stop her from wishing each individual to have a “good morning and a blessed day.”

NWTC President Dr. Jeff Rafn released this statement to Action 2 News: “We fully support freedom of speech and we promote the respectful exchange of ideas. We also have a responsibility to protect the privacy of students and the integrity of the learning environment. The College will continue to ensure that it meets its legal obligations."

Polly Olsen was invited to the White House in March as part of President Donald Trump's address on campus free speech.

“Even though we have our First Amendment rights, it’s an extra precaution to make sure that campuses are actually following through in allowing students to speak on both sides of an issue or multiple sides of an issue or religion,” she said.