On the morning of February 14, 2018, Polly Olsen, a paralegal student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), handed out handmade heart-shaped Valentines around the school campus. Each of her cutout hearts contained short messages such as, “Jesus Loves You!” “You are loved!” and “You are never alone!” with accompanying references to Bible verses. Early in her life, Olsen and her mother began the tradition of making religious-themed Valentines and handing them out on Valentine’s Day to friends, acquaintances, and strangers at nursing homes and hospitals. After her mother died in 2013, it was important to Olsen to carry on the tradition.
After handing out about a dozen cards, Olsen was stopped by campus police and escorted to the school’s security office, where the security supervisor told her that they had received an anonymous complaint that a female student was passing out Valentine’s Day cards containing Bible references in a restricted area. He explained that her actions violated NWTC’s Public Assembly Policy because distributing the Valentine’s cards was considered “solicitation” of literature, which was not allowed unless she had prior approval and stayed within the designated “public assembly area” located outside the main entrance and the student center — which amounted to 480 square feet of the 145-acre campus. The supervisor explained that the reason for their conversation was the possibility she was “disturbing the learning environment,” adding that some people could find the messages she had written offensive.
After this encounter, Olsen contacted the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and filed a complaint against the college for violating her First Amendment rights of free speech.
In their defense, NWTC claimed the Public Assembly Policy was necessary to protect the privacy of students and the integrity of the learning environment. Furthermore, NWTC argued that its entire campus was not public, but a nonpublic forum, except for the designated “Public Assembly Areas” where “expressive activity” was allowed. Expressive activity is defined as “demonstrations, picketing, vigils, rallies, performances, petitioning, gathering of signatures, distribution of literature, and other forms of outward communication.” They maintained that the areas where Olsen was handing out her Valentines were inappropriate and not within the designated areas and that NWTC security officers acted lawfully in prohibiting her actions.
How Would You Rule?
The court ruled that the NWTC Public Assembly Policy was irrelevant in Olsen’s case. The judge wrote, “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.’”
The judge went on to rule that NWTC’s Public Assembly Policy was unconstitutionally vague. The main problem lies in the phrases “distribution of literature” and “other forms of outward communication.” Is a simple note “literature”? And what form of communication with another person is not outward?
—Olsen v. Rafn, 2019
This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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I agree with the court’s ruling 100%. What’s both ridiculous and really sad here is that Polly had to file a complaint against the college in the first place for violating her First Amendment rights of free speech. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all.