Handing out Valentine’s Day cards is a time-honored American tradition. I can remember participating in the yearly event back in elementary school starting as early as the first grade.
So who would have guessed that handing out religiously-themed Valentine’s Day cards on a public college campus would end up in the courts? Such are the times in which we live.
On Valentine’s Day, 2018, Polly Olsen, a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) was anonymously reported to the school administration for “suspicious activity.” It turns out she was approaching students on campus and handing out heart-shaped cards with inscriptions such as “Jesus loves you. Romans 5:18,” “You are loved and cared for! 1 Peter 5:7,” and “You are special! 1 John 4:11.”
Campus security was dispatched, and she was warned that some people found her cards “offensive.” She was also told that she was violating school rules by engaging in “solicitation” outside of the school-designated “free speech zones” and told to stop handing out her cards. The free speech zones totaled 480 square feet, while the campus sits on 145 acres, comprising over a million square feet of space.
Olsen and her attorneys at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) took the school to federal court and won. The decision of the court notes: “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.’”
Olsen’s attorney and WILL’s President, Rick Esenberg noted in an online news release that, “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. 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.”
Many state legislatures have taken steps to protect free speech on public campuses in the face of rules and restrictions imposed by college administrators that chill the freedom to express one’s thoughts, including religious thoughts.
Unconstitutional speech policies have no place on college campuses, which are supposed to be marketplaces for the free exchange of ideas. Thankfully, more and more students are learning that their constitutional rights do not end at the gates of public educational institutions. With skilled legal help, students are consistently winning free speech victories, which then serve to further educate the public as well as college administrations. The hope is that, one day, public colleges and universities will become the free speech havens they once were.
Photo from NWTC Facebook page