Higher education

Iowa State University drops appeal in marijuana T-shirt dispute

Damages in lawsuit still to be negotiated

Curtiss Hall (left) and the Campanile (right) on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Curtiss Hall (left) and the Campanile (right) on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

After several judges already sided with former Iowa State University students who accused administrators of violating their free-speech rights by banning a marijuana T-shirt design, the university is dropping its appeal.

The lawsuit pertains to events in 2012 when then-students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich — with ISU’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws chapter, or NORML — say administrators, after pressure from state politicians, rescinded their group’s T-shirt designs.

The court has not yet awarded damages in the lawsuit, first filed in July 2014, and a hearing to do so hasn’t been scheduled. An appellate court in September ordered Iowa State to pay Furleigh and Gerlich’s attorney fees and expenses totaling $193,259.51.

“We dropped further appeal,” ISU spokesman John McCarroll told The Gazette. “The case still is pending, and no payments have been made.”

The case hinged on an ISU Trademark Licensing Office decision in October 2012 to approve a NORML ISU T-shirt that included the group’s name, the ISU mascot and an image of a cannabis leaf.

But after the Des Moines Register weeks later published a photo of the T-shirt, sparking criticism among legislators and citizens, administrators changed the rules and rescinded the approval, according to the lawsuit.

Furleigh and Gerlich sued former ISU President Steven Leath and other top administrators, claiming free-speech and equal-protection violations.


Iowa State’s defense, among other things, argued the marijuana symbol largely is associated with illicit drug use and legislative proposals to legalize marijuana, which the university is barred from endorsing.

A district court judge sided with the students in 2016, and Iowa State appealed, asking the court to halt proceedings on damages and on its enforcement of the ban.

Failing to do so, the university argued, risked damage to the ISU brand and its efforts to recruit students, private and governmental support, faculty and staff, and alumni participation and support.

But appellate courts twice upheld the original decision, and the most recent ruling over the summer confirmed the four administrators named in the lawsuit can be held personally responsible.

In addition to Leath, the named administrators are Warren Madden, former senior vice president, and Thomas Hill, former senior vice president for student affairs, both of whom have retired, and Leesha Zimmerman, program director for Iowa State’s trademark licensing office.

Leath in May left Iowa State to assume the presidency at Auburn University.

Depending on damages awarded, the state — and thus taxpayers — could be on the hook, as Iowa compensates state employees who are sued for job-related action, “so long as the employee’s conduct was not willful or malicious.”

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

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