Iowa State University cannot bar a student group from using the university’s logo and mascot on T-shirts advocating the legalization of marijuana, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The lawsuit, sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as part of its Stand Up for Free Speech Litigation Project, was filed by two former Iowa State students in 2014. At the time, the students were officers with the university's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. They had repeatedly sought permission to use the Iowa State logo alongside a cannabis leaf on their shirts, but their requests were denied, with the university saying it did not want to appear to be endorsing the group’s agenda.
But the court's opinion noted that the university allows 800 other student groups to use the logo, including organizations with differing political viewpoints, such as the Iowa State Democrats and the ISU College Republicans. “NORML ISU's use of the cannabis leaf does not violate ISU's trademark policies because the organization advocates for reform to marijuana laws, not the illegal use of marijuana,” the panel wrote.
The university had originally allowed the group to use its logo and mascot on the shirts, until the chapter’s president was quoted in a local newspaper suggesting that the university supported NORML's mission. According to emails shared among university officials and included in the lawsuit, local politicians pressured the university to revoke its approval of the T-shirts. One such email came from the governor's office.
“Any time someone from the governor's staff calls complaining, yeah, I'm going to pay attention,” Steven Leath, Iowa State’s president, said during his deposition.
When NORML requested permission to use the trademarked logo in a new order of the shirts, the request was put on hold while the university changed its trademark guidelines. The new rules suddenly prohibited “designs that suggest promotion of dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors,” or “drugs and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful.”
After the rules were updated, university officials university told NORML they would have to approve any future shirt designs before they were submitted to the university’s trademark office. No other student groups were subject to such a review.
Two of the group’s officers sought FIRE's help in suing the university. The lawsuit alleged that Iowa State had “manipulated its trademark policy” specifically to prevent NORML from using the Iowa State cardinal mascot and logo. Erin Furleigh, one of the student plaintiffs, said she was hesitant to resort to legal action but had no other option after attempts to handle the conflict internally, including submitting several other designs, failed.
“We’re little students and they’re big university officials, and it can be intimidating,” Furleigh said. “We approached FIRE just to ask, ‘Are we really wrong here? Because I feel bad, and I don’t think that I should feel bad.’”
Last year, a federal court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting Iowa State from using its trademark policy to prevent NORML from printing new T-shirts featuring university trademarks and cannabis leaves. Because the university had rejected the group’s designs over the “messages they expressed” and in an attempt to “maintain favor with Iowa political figures,” the court ruled that Iowa State had discriminated against the group and violated the First Amendment.
Iowa State chose to appeal, but Monday’s ruling by the higher court reaffirms the initial decision. John McCarroll, a university spokesman, said Iowa State is reviewing the appellate court’s decision and has not decided yet whether to appeal again.
Monday’s ruling is another win for FIRE’s Stand Up for Free Speech project, in which the organization supports students looking to sue colleges over First Amendment issues.
Four of the project’s initial six lawsuits have ended in settlements. Last February, Ohio University agreed to revise several of its policies after it was sued for ordering a student group to stop wearing T-shirts featuring the slogan “We get you off for free.” The group, which provides free legal assistance to students accused of disciplinary infractions, had used the slogan for three decades before being told to stop.
In recent months, FIRE has also spoken out about another T-shirt case involving a NORML chapter at the University of Missouri. The group had asked to use the university’s name on a T-shirt depicting a cannabis leaf. The university rejected the request because of “drug-related imagery.”
“I think Monday’s ruling sends the message to universities that they can’t use their trademark policies to discriminate against students who want to advocate for marijuana legalization,” Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation, said. “I think the court made it clear that you can’t offer a benefit to student groups, then deny that to a particular campus organization whose message you don’t like.”
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