Iowa State Pays Pot-Reform Students $343,000 in Fees

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A First Amendment battle between Iowa State University and a student group advocating marijuana law reform will cost Iowa at least $343,000 in appellate attorney fees, under a settlement approved Tuesday.

The ISU student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) sued Iowa State University in 2014 after the school revoked permission for its use of the school’s logo and athletic mascot on T-shirts bearing the NORML logo and an image of a cannabis leaf.

U.S. District Judge James Gritzner ruled in 2016 that the university violated the students’ constitutional rights because Iowa State allowed other groups to use its logo, so barring NORML constituted viewpoint discrimination. Gritzner’s ruling was upheld on appeal to the Eighth Circuit.

The State Appeal Board last week agreed to pay $75,000 apiece to the two students who sued — Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh — plus $178,826 to Davis Wright Tremaine and $14,434 to Faegre Baker Daniels, in Des Moines.

The legal fees are for the law firms’ appellate work. Legal fees for their work at the trial level will be determined on remand by Judge Gritzner. Those fees are expected to be substantially higher than the appellate fees.

The settlement also makes permanent the trial court’s injunction against the university.

Robert Corn-Revere, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, called it an important victory in a telephone interview Tuesday. “Any time you have courts uphold your constitutional rights when you are challenging state authority, that’s what’s really important.”

He said the $343,000 fee award sends a signal to government officials that “when they violate people’s rights, it isn’t free.”

The Iowa Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the settlement, but provided a Jan. 4 letter from Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson to the State Appeal Board. Thompson said in the letter: “We have determined that it is in the State’s best interests to resolve these remaining issues by agreement rather than incurring additional costs and fees that would result from a trial solely on the question of damages.”

The State Appeal Board is made up of the Iowa state treasurer, the state auditor and the director of the state Department of Management.

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