Polly Olsen is a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) in Green Bay. One year ago today (on Valentine’s Day) she was handing out religiously themed Valentines on the NWTC campus. She was stopped by an NWTC security guard and told that she must cease and desist. She was escorted to the NWTC Security Office and in the process was told that she was soliciting, that she was disturbing a learning environment (even though she did not go into any classroom, library, etc.) and that the messages on her Valentines (“Jesus Loves You”) could be offensive.
She explained that she had a constitutional right to free speech to no avail. She filed a complaint with the NWTC administration to no avail. She met with NWTC administrators to no avail. So she filed a lawsuit and has now asked the court to rule in her favor on the issue.
In response, NWTC issued a press release yesterday and that shows that they simply do not get it. The statement was issued by Vice President of Student Services Dr. Colleen Simpson. In its press release, NWTC made three points:
- Like any student, Polly is welcome and free to hand out material as long as she stays out of active classrooms and labs, and other areas where students are learning, and areas where confidential student or employee information is being handled or maintained – our only concerns with Polly’s activities last year.
But this is not true. NWTC has a written Public Assembly Policy. It states that literature “may be distributed in the public assembly area only” (emphasis added). Under the Public Assembly Policy, NWTC has created a 480 square foot “Public Assembly Area” outside the entrance to one of the NWTC buildings. The NWTC campus consists of 145 acres and has 1.073 million square feet of building space. That means that the “Public Assembly Area” constitutes 0.0076% of the campus area. Moreover, none of the entire 1.073 million square feet of enclosed building space on the campus is part of the Public Assembly Area. That 480 square foot area is the only area on campus on which students can hand out literature and engage in free speech. Moreover, Polly did not hand out Valentines in active classroom or labs or areas where confidential student and employee information was being handled. She was primarily in the building on campus referred to as the Student Center.
- In addition, if Polly, like all students, has questions about handing out materials within NWTC’s campus locations, she has been free to contact me or any other representative of the NWTC’s Student Services office. Like last year, we have not received any such questions from Polly.
But Polly met with the NWTC Security team immediately after being ordered to stop handing out Valentines and got nowhere. She was told she could not do so because it was soliciting, disturbing the learning environment, the messages on her Valentines could be offensive and she violated the Public Assembly Policy. She then filed a written complaint with the NWTC administration and got nowhere. She then met with two NWTC administrators and NWTC’s legal counsel and got nowhere. Ultimately, Polly sued NWTC on September 4, 2018 to defend her rights and NWTC has fought Polly’s lawsuit. NWTC’s legal strategy in the lawsuit has been consistent with the statements made to Polly by its Security Department at the outset – NWTC’s position is that its Public Assembly Policy is constitutional and that by handing out religiously themed Valentines on Valentine’s Day, Polly was violating the Policy.
- It is important to note that in October 2017, the Public Assembly Policy was reviewed as part of our regular policy review process. While we confirmed that it satisfies the Constitution, we decided that it was due for an update. With the help and insight of NWTC leaders and legal counsel, the policy has been redrafted as the NWTC Freedom of Speech, Expression, and Public Assembly Policy. Currently, it is being reviewed by a group of NWTC students to make sure it satisfies the desires of our student body. Upon our receipt of these students’ thoughts and comments on the draft policy, it will be finalized and adopted by the NWTC Executive Leadership Team. At that point, the old Public Assembly Policy will be permanently withdrawn.
The Public Assembly Policy is one and a quarter pages. It is unconstitutional for the reasons set forth by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty here. NWTC has been saying that it was going to rewrite this page and a quarter policy for almost 18 months. But it has still not revoked the existing unconstitutional policy. Nor has it actually adopted a new policy and there is no guarantee that the new policy (if it ever actually adopts one) will protect the constitutional rights of its students to free speech.
NWTC has had many opportunities to resolve this matter but it has not taken advantage of any of them. Polly has been forced by NWTC to fight this battle in court.