Judge declines to dismiss Iowa State pro-marijuana free speech lawsuit

Student: 'The facts can't be ignored'

Iowa State logo
Iowa State logo

A lawsuit accusing Iowa State University administrators, including President Steven Leath, of censoring a pro-marijuana student group’s right to free speech will proceed in district court, a judge ruled this week.

The lawsuit’s defendants — including Leath, Warren Madden, senior vice president of business and financial affairs, and Thomas Hill, senior vice president for student affairs — filed a motion in September asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds it failed to show a violation of constitutional rights.

Chief Judge James Gritzner in his ruling Tuesday disagreed with all four of the administrators’ arguments for dismissal and said the lawsuit “sufficiently alleges facts indicating that a reasonable college administrator would know that restricting students’ speech based on viewpoint is a constitutional violation.”

The lawsuit was filed July 1 by ISU students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh — both members of the school’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, chapter — as part of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project.

The project involves seven lawsuits, including the one at Iowa State. Three already have been settled “in favor of free speech,” according to the foundation, with students collecting a total of $210,000 in fees and damages.

The Iowa State lawsuit accuses administrators of censoring NORML ISU’s T-shirt designs based on their marijuana messaging and imagery, removing the group’s adviser, and amending university guidelines to restrict the group’s speech.

According to the lawsuit, the ISU Trademark Licensing Office in 2012 approved a T-shirt design submitted by the students that included their group’s name, the Iowa State mascot, and an image of a cannabis leaf.


A few weeks later, however, the Des Moines Register ran a photo of the then-NORML ISU president wearing one of the shirts, and that picture drew criticism. Madden and Hill, according to the lawsuit, called a meeting with the group and rescinded approval of the T-shirt design, saying it suggested ISU supports marijuana legalization.

And, two months later, the university’s Trademark Licensing Office revised its guidelines to restrict designs using ISU marks that promote dangerous, illegal, or unhealthy products, according to the lawsuit.

Among its arguments for dismissal, Iowa State officials in court documents said the case is not about First Amendment rights but rather about the use of university trademarks.

And ISU spokesman John McCarroll has told The Gazette that student organizations have the right to express their views, “but they can’t attribute those views to the university.”

“Iowa State has the right and obligation to manage the use of our university trademarks,” McCarroll told The Gazette in July.

The case is scheduled to proceed, with trial scheduled for December, according to court records.

“We’re very pleased with the court’s decision to deny every part of ISU’s motion to dismiss,” Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) President Greg Lukianoff said in a news release. “FIRE looks forward to a successful outcome that affirms ISU students’ right to freely advocate for their beliefs.”

Furleigh, in the news release, said it “feels so good to know the facts can’t be ignored anymore.”

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