Student sues NWTC after being barred from handing out Valentines

Polly Olsen files lawsuit against NWTC. (WLUK/Amber Luckett

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WLUK) -- A student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College filed a federal lawsuit against the school, claiming her First Amendment rights were violated when she was prohibited from handing out religious-themed Valentine’s Day cards.

Polly Olsen claims she was not being disruptive, was not a threat, and that the suppression was “based, in part, on the religious content of the cards,” the 23-page lawsuit states.

"I love my school, but I love my freedom, this country and my God more," said Olsen. "I've been dealing with this issue for four years on campus and it was time to reach out and have something else happen."

According to the school’s incident report obtained by FOX 11, NWTC officials told Olsen she was violating the school’s public assembly policy, which sets a designated space for distribution of literature, picketing or displaying protest signs. Olsen was not in that area, the report says.

Kate Smits, the Vice President of College Advancement at the school said they met with Olsen after the incident so she could help create a new policy that would be positive for all students on campus.

"The reason for the policy is because a public college is not like a public area like a park. At a college we have a lot of places where there are confidential records, information about students and it's those areas we really try and keep students out of," Smit explained. "In May we invited the student named in the lawsuit to review the policy as we are working on it because we understand her passion for freedom of expression and wanted to make sure, from a student's perspective, we are meeting their needs," she said.

Smits also released the following statement on the lawsuit:

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) is committed to the free exchange of ideas and to maintaining a welcoming and safe environment that promotes student success.
Because we respect student confidentiality, we do not comment on student conduct. We take student concerns about free speech seriously and we take our legal responsibility to protect student records seriously as well. Free speech is exercised every day in many different contexts all over the NWTC campus. The policy deals with “public assembly” as the law recognizes that, unlike a public park, not all physical areas of educational institutions are open for public assembly.
The policy in question has been under review since October 2017 and is in the final stages of revision and approval. The student referred to in the lawsuit was invited to participate in the review to provide a student perspective. College’s current Assembly Policy can be found here: https://www.nwtc.edu/NWTC/media/About-Us/Public-Assembly-Policy.pdf

The suit claims that the policy is itself unconstitutional.

“The Defendants have maintained and enforced a set of policies that unconstitutionally restrict the First Amendment rights of the Plaintiff and other students at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College by, among other things, restricting expressive activities to a tiny portion of campus, requiring prior approval even within that tiny area, and arrogating to administrators unfettered discretion as to whether to confer that approval, and enacting broad and vague restrictions on speech throughout campus,” it states.

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