Last Friday, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled that the First Amendment rights of Polly Olsen, a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, had been violated by her university. Her alleged misdeed? Handing out Valentine’s Day cards with Bible verses written on them.
FIRE wrote about this incident in all of its absurdity when the lawsuit was first filed. While Olsen was handing out Valentine’s Day cards — an annual tradition of hers — someone anonymously reported her to the campus safety office. Her actions, described in the initial safety office report as a “suspicious activity,” were caught on camera and posted by her legal team at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. The video shows just how “suspicious” she was.
In their initial statement about the lawsuit, NWTC argued that the problem was not the religious content of Olsen’s speech but rather that she was handing out cards in the General Studies Office a part of campus that was not “public.” Of course, it is hard to believe this claim because the campus safety officer’s written statement acknowledged that he “explained to Olsen that some people may … find the message written on the card offensive.”
Fortunately for Olsen, and all supporters of the First Amendment, Judge William Griesbach saw through NWTC’s arguments, writing that “there is no evidence that [the General Studies Office] 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.”
At public colleges, which are bound by the First Amendment, these free speech zones are often unconstitutional.
It isn’t yet clear whether NWTC will appeal the decision, but in a statement to Fox News, NWTC President Jeffrey Rafn said in part, “The ruling talks about common spaces, and I think we’ll make it clear that students can be in any of the common spaces.” NWTC has already begun taking steps to improve its policies surrounding student assembly and expression, though Rafn denies that it was in response to the lawsuit.
When Olsen got into trouble, NWTC maintained what some schools refer to as a “free speech zone.” Theirs was especially tiny, limiting free expression to an area that amounted to about 1% of the campus. NWTC’s new policy, however, eliminates a requirement for prior notice and expands the areas where expression can take place.
FIRE has written time and again about the problems with free speech zones. Namely, they limit student speech to what usually amounts to a small, quarantined space, and schools often still require advance notice and reservations for their use. At public colleges, which are bound by the First Amendment, these zones are often unconstitutional.
Of course, it is puzzling why many public colleges still haven’t gotten the message, especially after FIRE settled a lawsuit with the Los Angeles Community College District that required the entire district to remove its unconstitutional zones and pay $225,000 in attorney’s fees. Schools should really be asking themselves: Is the legal risk really worth it? NWTC apparently didn’t and has now spent over a year fighting a lawsuit over Valentine’s Day cards.
Polly Olsen’s rights were vindicated in court, but there still remain many students whose schools would unreasonably limit their speech and expression and confine them to free speech zones. FIRE stands ready to help any student who thinks that his or her rights have been violated and is always willing to work with college administrators who wish to ensure that their policies align with the law.