Iowa University Loses Appeal in Free Speech Case Over Marijuana T-Shirt

By Paul Gaita 02/14/17

The pro-marijuana t-shirt featured the school's mascot, a marijuana leaf and the slogan, "Freedom is NormL at ISU." 

Iowa State University

Iowa State University (ISU) has lost an appeal in a 2014 lawsuit, which stated that the school violated the First Amendment rights of two students by prohibiting a t-shirt featuring the ISU mascot and a marijuana leaf.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down the decision on February 13, which unanimously upheld the original ruling by a federal judge in 2016, which declared that ISU had violated the students' free speech rights in prohibiting the t-shirt, a decision made on the basis of the pair's political viewpoint and not, as ISU administration attempted to argue in its appeal, due to a violation of school trademark policy.

The students that launched the suit, Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, were the former president and vice president, respectively, of the ISU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

In its ruling on Monday, the three-judge panel wrote that "NORML ISU's use of the cannabis leaf does not violate ISU's trademark policies because the organization advocates for reform to marijuana laws, not the illegal use of marijuana."

Gerlich applauded the panel's decision. "I'm most excited about the ruling being unanimous," he told reporters. "That shows how we were clearly in the right from the start."

Free speech and marijuana reform groups also expressed their appreciation for the decision, as did several conservative Christian groups across the country which supported the case due to their own problems with censorship of free speech on college campuses.

The case was borne out of a 2012 incident when a member of NORML ISU displayed a t-shirt bearing the school's mascot, Cy the Cardinal, and a marijuana leaf, which were printed over the slogan "Freedom is NormL at ISU."

When a photo of the student wearing the t-shirt appeared in the Des Moines Register newspaper, it drew complaints from Iowa lawmakers and Steven Lukan, director of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy, who contacted ISU President Steven Leath over concerns that the shirt implied that the school endorsed marijuana legalization.

The following year, the school changed its trademark policy to prohibit any use of an image of Cy with drugs or drug paraphernalia. Though the shirt had already been approved by the university prior to the appearance of the photo in the newspaper, after the change in policy, it technically violated the school's criteria for acceptable t-shirt designs.

Gerlich and Furleigh noted that ISU also removed the group's adviser and were prevented from printing even the name of their organization because the "M" in NORML stood for marijuana.

Both students filed suit in 2014, which became part of the Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project, a national litigation campaign against campus speech codes launched by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

In a news release, FIRE's director of litigation, Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, stated that they were "pleased to see Paul and Erin's victory unanimously affirmed by the Eighth Circuit today. [They] had the courage to stand up for their First Amendment rights, and thousands of students in seven states will now benefit from their commitment."

An ISU spokesperson said that the school acknowledged the ruling and offered no further comment, but added that ISU was "reviewing the court's decision, and have not decided whether to appeal."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.