Spread across three campuses in Green Bay, Marinette, and Sturgeon Bay, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) — where students earn two-year associate degrees — is not a likely setting for a constitutional showdown.
Earlier this week, however, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) filed a federal lawsuit against NWTC over an alleged violation of a student’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Based in Milwaukee, WILL is a nonprofit committed to “advancing the public interest in the rule of law, individual liberty, constitutional government, and a robust civil society,” as its website notes.
The legal brief Campus Reform obtained says that Polly Olsen, a student at NWTC, sued her school on Tuesday for what she termed an “unconstitutional” public assembly policy.
The back story: On Feb. 14, 2018, while Olsen was passing out handmade, heart-shaped Valentine’s Day cards containing Bible verses — in loving memory of her mother, who’d passed away — she was confronted by a security guard.
The guard told that her she was violating school policy by “soliciting” and being “disruptive.”
He also warned her she could hand out the valentines only in the designated “free speech area” on campus, which requires prior reservation and approval.
Meanwhile, court documents allege: “An unidentified person telephoned the NWTC Office of Safety & Security and, per the NWTC Security Office report, complained that a female student (Ms. Olsen) was handing out Valentine’s Day cards with Bible references on the cards in the area of the General Studies.”
Olsen was not handing out valentines during any class, in the library — or in any area where students were in a learning environment, according to court documents.
NWTC’s vice president of advancement, Karen Smit has since issued the following statement: “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,” Smit continued, “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.”
In a phone conversation with LifeZette, Smit emphasized that “this is not a free speech issue, but an issue of public assembly.”
Smit told LifeZette that when the security guard was called, Olson had been passing out valentines in a private business operation suite where there was potential access to computer screens with confidential student records, and that area was off limits to the public.
Court documents allege something different, though.
“She walked through a number of areas in the NWTC Student Center handing out Valentines. The NWTC Student Center, as its name indicates, is a part of the NWTC campus that serves a number of needs for its students. It has student common areas, lounge areas, a cafeteria, a coffee shop, and certain offices providing student services, including offices known as the General Studies Office. Ms. Olsen handed out Valentines in various areas of the NWTC Student Center.”
In addition, “On information and belief, when Supervisor Jandrin and Security Coordinator Schultz told her that she had entered an area in which access by students is restricted without being invited or announced,” the documents continue. “They were referring to the General Studies Office in the Student Center. Prior to Valentine’s Day in 2018, Ms. Olsen had been in the General Studies Offices many times because she knew some of the people that worked there.”
Some see this case as very clear. “The plaintiff was exercising her First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion when she handed out valentines containing Bible verses,” Freedom X founder, president and CEO William Becker told LifeZette.
“Campus police — real life ‘Barney Fifes’ [a somewhat goofy character from ‘The Andy Griffith Show’] — sprung into action, viewed the ‘suspicious’ behavior of a woman wearing a red dress, took her into custody and charged her with unlawful solicitation. This would be sad if it weren’t so laughable, but it is just another all-too-common example of the unhinged hysteria left-wing members of the public exhibit in enacting their hate-filled irrational hostility toward Christians,” added Becker.
Based in Los Angeles, Freedom X advocates for First Amendment rights of free speech and religious liberty.
“The public college should have taken steps to avoid a lawsuit. Now, this presumed ‘institute of higher learning’ will learn a lesson in constitutional law requiring it to compensate the plaintiff’s attorneys for their fees and court expenses. The school should be embarrassed, but as we often see, the Left has no shame,” said Becker.
See more on the case in the video below.
Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter.