Education

Iowa State marijuana T-shirt battle to cost state nearly $1 million

Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

A four-year legal battle pitting Iowa State University against a group of pro-marijuana students and their pro-marijuana T-shirts could will the state nearly $1 million after a judge this month tacked on another $600,000 to already awarded damages and fees.

The U.S. District Court judgment directed the students receive nearly $600,000 in attorney fees and costs, adding to amounts previously awarded or settled on — and bringing the state’s losses to nearly $1 million, according to the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE, as that organization calls itself, included the Iowa State case in its “Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.”

“FIRE is thrilled to see this chapter in our ongoing Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project close with such a resounding victory for student speech nationwide,” according to a FIRE statement. “We are so grateful to Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh for having the courage to stand up against censorship — and to keep standing up, year after year, throughout this case.”

The issue started in 2012 when Iowa State approved a T-shirt design for the school’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — or ISU NORML.

The shirt design included an image of Iowa State mascot Cy’s head in place of the “O” in NORML and a cannabis leaf. When the Des Moines Register weeks later ran a photo of one of the T-shirts, public and state officials criticized the design, prompting ISU administrators to rescind design approval and change the rules, according to the students’ lawsuit.

After Iowa State rejected alternative shirt designs in 2013 and 2014, ISU NORML officers Gerlich and Furleigh sued the school on July 1, 2014 — among four lawsuits included in FIRE’s project.

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A U.S. District Court judge granted a permanent injunction in January 2016 barring Iowa State from using trademark policy to halt ISU NORML T-shirt production.

“The Honorable James E. Gritzner held that the ISU defendants discriminated against ISU NORML based on viewpoint, in violation of the First Amendment, by rejecting the group’s T-shirt designs ‘due to the messages they expressed’ in order to ‘maintain favor with Iowa political figures’,” according to the FIRE release.

That judge denied “qualified immunity” to the ISU administrators named in the lawsuit — former ISU President Steven Leath, former Senior Vice President Warren Madden, former Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Thomas Hill, and Program Director for ISU’s Trademark Licensing Office Leesha Zimmerman.

That meant those individuals could be held personally responsible for the damages — although the State of Iowa compensates its employees who are sued for job-related action “so long as the employees’ conduct was not willful or malicious.”

ISU spokesman John McCarroll told The Gazette the state, with approval from the State Executive Council, “pays all the costs associated with judgment from state funds, not Iowa State University funds.”

University officials did not comment further on the litigation or judgment. The university has grappled with funding issues of late, as the state continues to cut its appropriations and reject Board of Regents appeals for more money in support of students and special projects.

Iowa State’s NORML lawsuit took years to resolve because the university appealed decisions along the way, and judges repeatedly agreed that administrators “unlawfully discriminated against ISU NORML based on the political viewpoints they expressed,” according to FIRE.

Iowa State in 2017 asked a full court rehear the case, a request that was denied, and a three-judge panel awarded Gerlich and Furleigh’s attorneys nearly $200,000 in fees and costs for their work on the appeal. Iowa State agreed to settle in January, paying Gerlich and Furleigh each $75,000.

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Judge Gritzner brought the case to a close this month by approving Iowa State pay nearly $600,000 for additional attorney fees and costs.

A Washington, D.C.-based attorney for the students, Robert Corn-Revere with Davis Wright Tremaine LLC, noted in a statement the case has taken a long wrong to summation.

“After nearly four years it is gratifying to bring this case to a successful conclusion with students’ First Amendment rights vindicated, our clients duly compensated for what they went through, and the system working as it should,” Corn-Revere said.

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