For many people, Valentine’s Day means showing love with fluffy teddy bears and pink things. But February 14 reminds me of my freedom of speech, and how no one should take that for granted. This Valentine’s Day marks two years since I was reprimanded for passing out Valentine’s on my college campus and it will be six months in March since I won the case defending my rights.
As a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) near Green Bay, Wisconsin, I carried on a family tradition of handing out valentines on Valentine’s Day that had words of encouragement and Bible references on them. This is something I’ve done since early in my life with my mother, who would hand them out every year at places like hospitals and nursing homes. Although she passed away I continued this tradition on my college campus.
I never could have imagined how this harmless and loving act would land me in a free speech battle with my college.
On February 14 2018, campus security stopped me from handing out my “Jesus Loves You!” valentines. When a security guard confronted me, I handed him a valentine and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.” He refused, telling me that he could not accept it because he was here to stop me from violating the school’s Public Assembly Policy. At NWTC, there was a small area on campus where protests, demonstrations, or other types of expressive activity are permitted. I was told I was soliciting and some people may be offended by my religious valentines. The only place I could distribute valentines, according to NWTC, was in the restricted free speech zone.
They thought I would go quietly like before. Too many do. But this time they were wrong. The First Amendment rights to speech and free exercise of religion are foundational.
They are also under increasing pressure, particularly on college campuses. Once the incubators of reasoned thought and debate, college campuses, like mine, are now subject to speech codes, free speech zones, and a culture that discredits those of us with religious views. So I committed to fighting in court, not just for my rights but for everyone’s freedom of speech on campus.
In September 2018, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), a nonprofit litigation center, filed a lawsuit in federal court on my behalf. WILL attorneys argued that NWTC must rescind their Public Assembly Policy and allow students to exercise their rights protected under the Constitution in any public space. The complaint argued, “The policies promulgated and enforced by NWTC have the effect of designating the overwhelming majority of the outdoor and indoor areas of NWTC’s campus as non-public forums, quarantining free expression — including even the handing out of Valentine’s Day cards on Valentine’s Day — to a small area of campus.”
NWTC didn’t back down. And while it might be easy to romanticize the idea of being at the center of a free speech lawsuit, it takes a toll. There is a certain stress and pressure that accompanies stepping up and stepping out. Some of my friends didn’t understand why this was important to me, straining relationships. NWTC even removed my nomination for an outstanding leadership award. But my fight was getting noticed.
In March 2019, my fight to distribute handmade Valentines with Bible verses took me to the White House. President Donald Trump invited me and other students who have had to fight for their rights to a special signing ceremony for an executive order to protect campus free speech. After telling my story, President Trump said, “Polly, give me some and I’ll send them around to my friends.”
In September, Friday the 13th, 2019, I won. The federal court ruled in my favor, acknowledging that NWTC violated my First Amendment rights. The Judge wrote, “NWTC had no more right to prevent [Olsen] from handing out individual Valentines than it did to stop her from wishing each individual to have a “good morning and a blessed day.”
Through it all, I learned a critical lesson that I wish more Americans would consider. When you fight for your rights under the Constitution, you are actually fighting for the rights of all Americans.
This fight was so important to me because I had to stay true to my faith. But I hope in doing so, I have played a small role in guarding the freedom that we all hold dear. If nothing else, I know I stood up for Jesus’ name, and my mom is proud.
For Polly’s mother’s story on how she fought for love and life check out the website, lifewithpollyanna.com.