Higher education

Court backs Iowa State University students in marijuana T-shirt case

ISU administrators, President Steven Leath, could be held personally liable

(File Photo) Iowa State University President Steven Leath shown giving a report during a Board of Regents meeting at the
(File Photo) Iowa State University President Steven Leath shown giving a report during a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. NORML members filed a lawsuit accusing ISU administrators — including President Leath — of violating their constitutional rights. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

A student marijuana advocacy group at Iowa State University says it “can’t wait to see what new T-shirt designs we come up with,” after a district court judge barred administrators from using trademark policy to prevent designs that include both ISU logos and marijuana leaves.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on Friday issued a permanent injunction against ISU administrators, who more than three years ago rescinded approval of a T-shirt design submitted by Iowa State’s student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — or NORML.

ISU’s Trademark Licensing Office in October 2012 had approved the shirt design — which included the group’s name, the Iowa State mascot, and a cannabis leaf — but then reversed its approval after a news article prompted questions and concerns about ISU’s perceived support of the group’s advocacy.

Iowa State also revised its trademark guidelines to restrict designs using ISU marks that promote dangerous, illegal, or unhealthy products.

According to the court order, ISU administrators acknowledged the policy revisions resulted from external criticism, including from those with political prominence.

NORML members said their group was being treated differently than other student groups. On July 1, 2014 they filed a lawsuit accusing ISU administrators — including President Steven Leath — of violating their constitutional rights.

The court sided with students and found Iowa State engaged in unconstitutional “viewpoint discrimination” because it rejected the group’s design based on its message and in hopes of maintaining political favor.

“These circumstances show that (Iowa State administrators) took action specifically directed at NORML ISU based on their views and the political reaction to those views so that (Iowa State) could maintain favor with Iowa political figures,” according to the judge. “As such, the court must conclude (Iowa State’s) conduct amounts to discrimination on the basis of (the students’) viewpoint.”

The judge did not find Iowa State’s trademark policy to be facially unconstitutional, which would have invalidated the policy on First Amendment grounds. But it did deny the lawsuit’s defendants “qualified immunity,” which means they could be held personally liable for violating student rights.

“It means the defendants could theoretically have to pay out of pocket,” Catherine Sevcenko, director of litigation for the Washington D.C.-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The Gazette.

In response to the court ruling, Iowa State’s administration issued a statement expressing disappointment.

“Iowa State University will consult with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to determine if the order will be appealed,” according to the statement.

Meanwhile, the two students behind the lawsuit — Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, both former presidents of Iowa State’s NORML chapter — issued statements expressing gratitude for the findings and the broader impact it could haves.

Gerlich said he hopes the decision “will help make sure that other students in Iowa, and maybe even nationally, won’t have to go through what we did.”

“And, of course, I can’t wait to see what new T-shirt designs we come up with,” he said.


Furleigh said this case illustrates the judgment NORML faces despite its community service, political outreach, and public education work.

“I hope this decision will remind our Iowa State community that college should be a welcoming place to absorb perspectives, share your own, and participate in productive, progressive dialogue,” she said.

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