Iowa State Students Win Pot T-Shirt Case

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The Eighth Circuit ruled Monday that Iowa State University cannot block approval of T-shirts designed by a student advocacy group that supports the legalization of marijuana.

In November 2012, the Des Moines Register published a front page article about legislative efforts in Iowa to legalize recreational and medical marijuana. In the article, Josh Montgomery, then president of the Iowa State University chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, talked about the student group’s political efforts to change Iowa’s marijuana laws.

He also stated that his group “has gotten nothing but support from the university,” according to Monday’s Eighth Circuit ruling. He even got approval from the school’s licensing office to make a NORML T-shirt with ISU’s Cy the Cardinal logo on the front and a pot leaf on the back.

Concerned that the public would misunderstand Montgomery’s statement, Leesha Zimmerman, the director of ISU’s Trademark Office, publicly said, “I believe that the statement in the article indicating ‘his group has gotten nothing but support from the university’ is a bit misleading. He may be confusing recognition of the group as the university ‘supporting’ it.”

According to the ruling, ISU ultimately rejected several of NORML’s additional trademark licensing requests because its designs included a cannabis leaf. Two members of the student group, Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, who served as president and vice president for NORML ISU, respectively, sued school administrators Steven Leath, Warren Madden, Thomas Hill and Zimmerman in July 2014.

The suit claimed that the school violated the group’s free speech and equal protection rights through its trademark office’s denial of their T-shirt designs.

But school administrators argued that not only did the students lack standing to bring a lawsuit, they also lack an injury because they argued for NORML’s right to free speech, not their own.

Upholding a federal judge, the Eighth Circuit on Monday shot down the school’s argument, finding the students’ attempts to get approval to use ISU’s trademarks on NORML’s merchandise is constitutionally protect speech.

The court sided with the district court’s decision to grant Gerlich and Furleigh summary judgment on their First Amendment claim because the administration’s rejection of the T-shirt designs discriminated against the student group on the basis of its viewpoint.

“The defendants’ discriminatory motive is evidenced by the unique scrutiny defendants imposed on NORML ISU after the Des Moines Register article was published,” Judge Diana Murphy wrote for a three-judge panel. “For example, after the article had been published, defendants placed NORML ISU’s reorder of T-Shirt Design #1 on hold despite the fact that the Trademark Office had already approved the design. Defendants claim that the hold on NORML ISU’s reorder request was not specific to that group because they also placed on hold a trademark request for a plaque made by the Association of Malaysian Students.”

Murphy continued, “Zimmerman indicated in an email, however, that if that group were to tell administrators when it needed the plaque, the Trademark Office ‘may be able to move that review forward.’ ISU did not offer NORML ISU similar flexibility. Moreover, Zimmerman testified that she could not recall ever placing another student group’s reorder request on hold, and Madden testified that he did not order the Trademark Office to hold reorder requests from any other student group.”

According to the ruling, the case record is also replete with statements from school administrators regarding their political motives.

“Leath explained at his deposition that because T-Shirt Design #1 ‘had some political public relations implications,’ someone should have ‘run it up the chain’ because ‘there are some issues that are clearly going to cause controversy and it’s better to manage them on the front end,’” the ruling states. “He also testified that ‘in a state as conservative as Iowa on many issues . . . it was going to be a problem.’”

In addition, Hill reportedly told the Ames Tribune that the reason other political student groups could use ISU’s logos but NORML could not is because administrators “encourage students to be involved in their duties as a citizen.”

“Such a statement implies that Hill believed that the members of NORML ISU were not undertaking their duties as citizens by advocating for a change in the law,” Murphy wrote in the 15-page ruling.

The Eighth Circuit concluded that NORML’s use of a cannabis leaf logo on its T-shirt designs does not violate ISU’s trademark policies because the organization advocates for reform to marijuana laws, not the illegal use of marijuana, and the district court’s injunctive order granting NORML the ability to use the school’s trademark was not an abuse of discretion.

“ISU followed an unusual trademark approval process with respect to all of NORML ISU’s trademark design applications after the Des Moines Register article was published,” Murphy wrote. “Moreover, defendants at least implied that the additional scrutiny imposed on NORML ISU was due to the views for which it was advocating.”