Jeff Charis-Carlson , firstname.lastname@example.org
Published 1:04 p.m. CT Feb. 13, 2017
Iowa State University has lost an appeal in a federal free speech lawsuit that affirms student rights regardless of political viewpoint.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Monday that ISU administrators including President Steven Leath violated First Amendment rights of two students who were top officers of the ISU chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws.
The students planned to print T-shirts depicting the school mascot and a marijuana leaf but Leath and others claimed it violated the school’s trademark policy.
The three-judge panel unanimously upheld a federal judge’s ruling last year that declared the school’s policy violated the students’ free speech rights and barred the university from prohibiting printing the T-shirt. Both rulings state that the university’s rejection of NORML ISU’s T-shirt designs discriminated against the student group on the basis of the group’s political viewpoint.
In its appeal, ISU officials argued, among other points, that the U.S. Constitution and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision gave ISU officials discretion in permitting trademark use.
The court disagreed.
“NORML ISU’s sue of the cannibis leaf does not violate ISU’s trademark policies because the organization advocates for reform to marijuana laws, not the illegal use of marijuana,” Monday’s ruling stated.
Students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, both former presidents of the NORML chapter at ISU, sued the university in July 2014 after officials rejected the student group’s already approved T-shirt design — which included a marijuana leaf over the words “Freedom is NormL at ISU.”
“I’m most excited about the ruling being unanimous,” Gerlich said in a phone interview Monday. “That shows how we were clearly in the right from the start.”
In their original complaint, the students detailed how the university censored the group’s T-shirts based on their marijuana-related messaging and imagery, removed NORML ISU’s adviser and implemented new guidelines for using ISU’s trademark in order to restrict NORML ISU’s speech.
Gerlich told the Register last year that he and Furleigh began seriously considering legal action after the university determined that could not even print the name of their organization on the T-shirts because the “M” stood for marijuana.
The suit is part of the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, overseen by the national organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“We are so pleased to see Paul and Erin’s victory unanimously affirmed by the Eighth Circuit today,” Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, FIRE’s director of litigation, said in a news release. “Paul and Erin had the courage to stand up for their First Amendment rights, and thousands of students in seven states will now benefit from their commitment.”
University officials acknowledged Monday’s ruling, but offer no further comment.
“We are reviewing the court’s decision and have not decided whether to appeal,” ISU spokesman John McCarroll said via email.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Reach Jeff Charis-Carlson at email@example.com or 319-887-5435. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffcharis.