Appeals court rules against Iowa State in pro marijuana T-shirt case

Appeals court rules against Iowa State in pro marijuana T-shirt case

Court: ISU engaged in ‘viewpoint discrimination’

Vanessa Miller
The Gazette

Feb 13, 2017 at 5:33 pm

A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals’ Eighth Circuit has upheld a federal court’s decision blocking Iowa State University from using its trademark policy to stop a campus student group advocating marijuana legalization from printing T-shirts.

ISU students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich — former officers with Iowa State’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws chapter — filed the lawsuit in July 2014, accusing the university of heavy-handed, politically motivated scrutiny over their use of Iowa State logos.

According to a news release Monday from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — or FIRE, through which the ISU lawsuit was filed — the Eighth Circuit found ISU administrators engaged in “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

According to the ruling, the court determined Iowa State followed an “unusual trademark approval process with respect to all of NORML ISU’s trademark design applications” after a Des Moines Register article was published, causing some political backlash.

The original lawsuit accused administrators of censoring NORML ISU’s T-shirt design based on their marijuana messaging and imagery, both removing the group’s adviser and changing university guidelines to restrict the group’s speech.

The lawsuit states the ISU Trademark Licensing Office approved a NORML ISU T-shirt design in 2012 that includes the group’s name and ISU mascot, along with an image of a cannabis leaf. When the Register a few weeks later ran a photo with one of the T-shirts, criticism prompted administrators to rescind approval of the designs and change the rules.

According to Monday’s ruling, ISU administrators “at least implied that the additional scrutiny imposed on NORML ISU was due to the views for which it was advocating.” It went on to say the administration was motivated “at least in part by pressure from Iowa politicians.”

“The district court did not err by concluding that defendants violated plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights because defendants engaged in viewpoint discrimination,” according to the ruling.

ISU spokeswoman Annette Hacker said the university is reviewing the decision and hasn’t decided yet whether to appeal.

In a statement, Gerlich said he’s been encouraged by the strong unanimous decisions coming from the court, “backing what we knew to be true from day one.”

“I’m excited that this case sets a precedent that protects students locally and throughout the nation,” Gerlich said in the statement.

Attorney Robert Corn-Revere, who represented the students, also said in a statement he’s encouraged by the precedent this case sets.

“The decision confirms that universities cannot grant or withhold benefits based on students’ political views,” he said. “And that includes their trademark programs.”

(319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com