Ban my Valentine: Bible verses on homemade cards at center of free speech lawsuit vs. college


While shopping at Wal-Mart on the day after Labor Day, I noticed workers putting together candy and costume displays for Halloween.

Yes, it will be time for trick-or-treating in just eight short weeks. Or something like that.

Speaking of retail holidays, readers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel might have been surprised to wake up this morning and find a front-page centerpiece on ... Valentine's Day!?:

It's not exactly the time of year when newspapers typically do Valentine's Day features. But this isn't a feature. It's a meaty free speech story involving a federal lawsuit filed this week. And yes, there's a strong religion angle:

All Polly Olsen wanted to do was carry on a family tradition of handing out homemade Valentines with Bible verses on Valentine's Day.
So, as she had done in previous years, the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College student went to campus in a red dress this past Valentine's Day and began delivering heart-shaped religious Valentines made out of construction paper to fellow students and college staffers.
This time, a security officer stopped her for "suspicious activity" and told her she was violating school policy by sharing unwanted, potentially offensive messages.
Among the messages:  "You are special! 1 John 4:11," "God is love! 1 John 4:11," “Jesus Loves you! Romans 5:8;" and "You are loved and cared for! 1 Peter 5:7." 
The 29-year-old Green Bay woman filed a federal lawsuit late Tuesday against the college where she is studying to become a paralegal, claiming campus security officials and others there violated her free speech rights by blocking a custom she described to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as "caring for others."

The Journal Sentinel — which I had forgotten was bought by Gannett two years ago — does an excellent job of simply presenting the facts of the story, relying on both the lawsuit petition and an interview with Olsen.

The college's response sounds like the kind of legalese that resulted in the free speech clash in the first place:

Karen Smits, NWTC's vice president of college advancement, said the campus policy on public assembly has been under review since 2017.
Smits said Olsen was invited to participate in the process, but out of respect to student confidentiality, "we do not comment on student conduct."
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College is committed to the free exchange of ideas and to maintaining a welcoming and safe environment that promotes student success, Smits said.
"Free speech is exercised every day in many different contexts all over the NWTC campus," she said. "The policy deals with 'public assembly' as the law recognizes that, unlike a public park, not all physical areas of educational institutions are open for public assembly."

An image of Deputy Barney Fife flashed in my mind as I read this line of the story:

The only person who refused a Valentine at NWTC this past Valentine's Day was the security guard who stopped her from distributing them, Olsen told the Journal Sentinel. 

For a spot-news report on the lawsuit, I thought the Journal Sentinel coverage was good.

What would I love to see in follow-up coverage? Quotes from other students about the college's approach to free speech would be interesting. So would insight from national experts — on the the right and the left — on freedom of speech and religion on campus.

Using this lawsuit as a peg for a larger story on such cases nationally also might be an opportunity for an enterprising Godbeat pro.

Your thoughts, dear GetReligion reader? I'd love to hear them after you have time to check out the full story.

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