By rejecting Iowa State University’s attempt to escape a lawsuit alleging that the university censored student speech, a federal judge has reaffirmed the principle that the First Amendment prevents powerful people from shutting down messages they don’t want to hear.
Two students from ISU’s student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) claimed that ISU administrators, including President Steven Leath, violated their First Amendment rights when ISU revoked approval of the group’s T-shirt advocating marijuana legalization. ISU also revised its trademark policies — which allow all recognized student groups to use the university’s logos and marks under certain conditions — to prohibit associating ISU trademarks, including the letters “ISU,” with “drugs” and other “unhealthy behaviors.” The school then refused to approve additional T-shirt designs that depicted a cannabis leaf.
My employer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, was proud to coordinate the lawsuit as part of our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. But many in the ISU community did not take the plaintiffs, Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, seriously. ISU claimed they were legitimately protecting their trademarks. Other students accused the pair of stirring up trouble. Federal judge James Gritzner disagreed, finding that “[n]o infringement is involved in the case at hand” and that the students had stated valid constitutional claims.
The judge’s order affirmed what Erin and Paul already understood: This case is not about T-shirts and trademarks, it is about the right to express views on controversial issues even if powerful people don’t like it.
Over 40 years ago, Iowa high school students John and Mary Beth Tinker wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The school sent them home. They sued, taking their fight all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The result was the landmark decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which affirmed that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Paul and Erin now carry that torch. Trial in Gerlich v. Leath is scheduled for December. These students’ fight started with a slogan on a T-shirt, rather than a black armband, but the principle — the right to speak their consciences and advocate change — is the same. Judge Gritzner’s order demonstrates that Paul and Erin had the right to protest their treatment. Perhaps it also will help other students and administrators at ISU realize what is at stake.