Thanks to a federal lawsuit, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) may have to change its policies policing speech on campus. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed the lawsuit on Tuesday on behalf of a student, Polly Olsen, who was prevented from handing religious-themed valentines on Valentine’s Day.
The Green Bay area college has a small area designated for “free speech,” a “public assembly zone,” and actually requires students to get a permit from the university before handing out flyers in that area. Olsen was handing out the Valentines outside the designated zone when she was stopped by campus security.
Olsen said at a press conference Wednesday that she was handing out the Valentines for about 15 minutes before she was stopped.
“I handed the security guard one and he was like, I can’t accept it,” Olsen said. “When I asked why, he said it was soliciting and you’re not allowed to according to our policy. And then he took me to the security office.”
Olsen said she’s dealing with the college’s restrictive speech policies for four years.
“They haven’t changed anything,” Olsen said, “So it was time to reach out and have something else happen.”
WILL President Rick Esenberg said NWTC’s speech policies are unconstitutional.
“While NWTC may wish to confine and regulate the free expression of their students, their policy is unconstitutional,” Esenberg said in a release Wednesday. “They cannot put First Amendment rights into a box. We intend to contest NWTC’s public assembly policy in federal court to protect the rights of students there and at all public institutions.”
This type of speech policing policy is used by too many universities, Esenberg said at the press conference.
“I think Polly has been brave enough to step up and to attempt to do something about this,” Esenberg said. “Not only to protect the rights of students at NWTC but across the country.”
The lawsuit drew praise from state Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville), the chairman of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee.
“Polly Olsen is a dedicated student and citizen, the sort of person that we all hope to have as a neighbor or friend. When Northeast Wisconsin Technical College barred her from handing out a simple message of love and acceptance, it did a disservice to her, their community, and our taxpayers who invest in the college,” said Murphy in a statement Wednesday. “Whenever colleges or universities restrict free speech, it violates the very core of why they exist, to expand minds and promote critical thinking. We are fortunate to have an organization like WILL to stand up for Polly Olsen’s freedom of speech.”
On Wednesday, WILL also released a video explaining the lawsuit: