GREEN BAY — As long as she can remember, Polly Olsen, 29, said she has handed out heart-shaped cards on Valentine’s Day.
“Basically since I could walk, me and my siblings would distribute them at nursing homes and hospitals,” said Olsen. “My mom would dress us up fancy and we would go hand them out.” The handmade cards included a positive, handwritten message in the center, along with a Bible passage.
Olsen continued the tradition when she enrolled part time at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) in 2009. On Valentine’s Day 2018, after distributing about 30 cards on the NWTC campus, Olsen was stopped by a campus security officer after someone anonymously called the security office. She was told that handing out the cards constituted “soliciting” and was in violation of the college’s public assembly policy. Olsen was also told that some people might find the Bible references on her cards offensive.
Olsen, through the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), filed a complaint against the college on Sept. 4, 2018, claiming that NWTC was violating her First Amendment rights of free speech. A year later, on Sept. 13, 2019, a federal judge in Green Bay ruled that NWTC did infringe on Olsen’s right to free speech.
In his 14-page summary judgment, U.S. District Court Chief Judge William Griesbach stated that NWTC “had no more right to prevent (Olsen) from handing out individual Valentines than it did to stop her from wishing each individual to have a ‘good morning and a blessed day.’”
In a statement, WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg said he was thankful for Olsen “stepping up to defend not only her own rights, but the rights of all students.”
“This case was very simple,” said Esenberg. “NWTC, through their public assembly policy, sought to restrain and contain the First Amendment rights of students. That is, and always has been, unconstitutional.”
NWTC President H. Jeffrey Rafn said in a statement, “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.”
In an email to The Compass, Rafn said the college’s decision to prevent Olsen from distributing cards wasn’t an attempt to obstruct her freedom of speech. Instead, he said, it was in response to her entering private areas of the campus to hand out her cards.
“We did not have a concern until Polly went into back offices where, among other things, confidential information is handled,” said Rafn. “I am unaware of other circumstances where students freely went into back offices. It is commonly assumed in any business that customers would not freely walk around into back offices. Our students abide by this common courtesy, although we have since added this admonition in the student handbook.”
In his summary decision, Judge Griesbach said there was no evidence that Olsen trespassed in restricted areas.
“Although NWTC makes much of the fact that Olsen went into the General Studies office to give a Valentine to her friend Casandra, there is no evidence that this was a restricted area and it is undisputed that Olsen had a practice of visiting employees at NWTC who were friends for both personal and school-related reasons,” wrote Judge Griesbach.
In an interview, Olsen, who graduated from NWTC last May with a paralegal degree and law office administration certificate, told The Compass that she was first prohibited from distributing Valentine cards in 2014, the year she and another student formed an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter on campus.
“When they stopped me and a couple of my friends from handing them out, they decided to go after my club, saying that we had disruptive members on campus,” she said. “They asked me to apologize for my ‘Jesus loves you’ Valentines. I told them I would not do that.”
Olsen calls the Valentine tradition “my personal thing that I do every year.” It became more personal on July 16, 2013, the day her mother, Debra, died from pancreatic cancer.
She said she makes 500 to 600 cards and distributes them with friends.
“At nursing homes, residents save them from year to year. They look forward to seeing me,” she said. “Depending on how many we make each year, we would cover an entire hospital or several nursing homes in the area.”
After filing the lawsuit in September 2018, Olsen’s attorneys filed a summary judgment last February, asking the court to rule in her favor without going to trial.
“So when we filed the summary judgment, (NWTC) then filed a claim saying that my case was moot because they had changed the public assembly policy,” said Olsen. “If you read what the judge said, their new policy was worse than the first policy and more restrictive.”
Judge Griesbach called the college’s new Freedom of Speech, Expression and Public Assembly Policy “unconstitutionally vague.”
Rafn said NWTC’s new policy “will be modified to clarify that it applies only to assemblies (more than one person) and is applicable when there is a desire to hold a rally of some sort.”
The Valentine card case received national attention on March 21, 2019, when Olsen was invited to the White House by President Donald Trump to attend a ceremony where he signed an executive order protecting free speech on college campuses.
According to Olsen, who attends Jacob’s Well Presbyterian Church in Green Bay, “What motivated me the most to not give up and not cower to the school’s bullying was the fact that they wanted me to apologize for Jesus’ name,” said Olsen. “I will not deny Jesus in any way, so I guess, ‘stand up for Jesus no matter what,’ would be what I would tell people. He uses little things to do big things, like change a law in our country with a Valentine.”