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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Clears Pot Club’s Use of School Logo

DES MOINES, Iowa - Iowa State University must stop censoring a student group that advocates the legalization of marijuana, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

Plaintiffs Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, who both served as presidents of the Iowa State University chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), sued school administrators Steven Leath, Warren Madden, Thomas Hill, and Leesha Zimmerman in July 2014 on free-speech and equal-protection grounds after ISU's trademark office repeatedly rejected their group's T-shirt designs, which included an image of a cannabis leaf above the national organization's logo.

The controversy emerged after the Des Moines Register ran a story about the group in November 2012, according to U.S. District Judge James Gritzner's 45-page opinion. In the article, the current president of the student group claimed the university "supported" the logo.

School administration - concerned that the public would misinterpret the student's statement - reiterated its policy that licensing a logo for student groups "does not mean that we take a position on what any of the organizations represent" and that the student in question was "confusing recognition of the group as the university 'supporting' it," according to the ruling.

Although the school only received three emails from concerned members of the public, Brad Trow, a staff member of the Iowa House Republican Caucus, was quick to contact the school about the article. The school started backpedaling after Steven Lukan, director of the Governor's Office for Drug Control Policy, insinuated that ISU should "change its trademark approval policies."

ISU President Steven Leath's chief of staff, Miles Lackey, determined that "the existing guidelines had been interpreted inappropriately to approve [the T-shirt design] and recommended revising the guidelines to prevent licenses for student group designs that promote drugs or alcohol," the ruling said.

When the group attempted to place another T-shirt order, the request was denied. Even though the national organization uses a cannabis leaf as part of its branding, ISU said no design would be acceptable that had "[school mascot] Cy [the cardinal] or any other ISU marks alongside a cannabis leaf." It subsequently rejected multiple T-shirt design variations from the group, including one that pictured a THC molecule, the ruling said.

Meanwhile, ISU allowed student groups such as CUFFS, a sexual bondage group, the Rifle and Pistol Group, and the Navy Corps Drill Team to continue using the school's logo, even though the latter's T-shirt design portrayed the school's mascot holding a rifle.

Because of this discrepancy, Gritzner did not buy the university's claims that the T-shirt designs were rejected due to "viewpoint-neutral guidelines."

"Defendants apparently previously applied the guidelines with flexibility, in one instance allowing designs with guns and swords - which apparently are not dangerous products under the guidelines - and in another instance prohibiting NORML ISU's designs, including designs with cannabis leaves - which presumably run afoul of the guidelines' ban on promoting illegal drugs," Gritzner wrote.

But because NORML advocates reforming existing marijuana laws, he added that "there is a crucial difference between promoting an illegal activity and advocating for an activity or substance that is now illegal to be made legal."

He continued: "Defendants' assertion that their denials of plaintiffs' designs were not politically motivated is unsupported by the record, which shows that plaintiffs' political message, and a political reaction, was a driving factor behind defendants' actions."

Plaintiffs' attorney, Robert Corn-Revere, told Courthouse News that the university should have adhered to its original plan to stress that it did not endorse student groups' viewpoints, which was "right on the money," he said.

"This is the kind of speech students engage in," he said. "But the instant they started getting some political reaction, [school administrators] changed their minds and also changed their policies."

Gritzner also rejected the university's argument that T-shirts bearing the school's logos were protected "government speech," finding this defense to be incongruous with the school's insistence that it did not endorse the viewpoints of various student groups.

"The trademark office's history of design approvals further demonstrates ISU does not license its trademarks to student groups to announce its political views, because the office has approved designs for an inchoate set of interest groups that are in one instance pro-life, then pro-BDSM, the pro-LGBTA, pro-Democrat, and pro-Republican," Gritzner wrote.

The university cannot claim immunity based on a misunderstanding of the law, either, as Gritzner found that "a reasonable person would understand that defendants' actions treaded on plaintiffs' First Amendment rights of political expression and association."

But the university does not have to toss its guidelines completely because "there are no penalties for submitting a design that is ultimately rejected," Gritzner said.

Still, because the guidelines were misapplied to "limit plaintiff's expression that did not offend the guidelines," the university must allow the usage of its logo on NORML's T-shirts, the judge concluded.

John McCarroll, executive director of ISU's media relations department, told Courthouse News the school was "disappointed" with the ruling and that it is consulting with Iowa's Attorney General's Office on whether to pursue an appeal.

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