Members of a student chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) at Iowa State sued the university in 2014 after they were barred from using an image of school mascot Cy the Cardinal (above) on T-shirts. (Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press file)

A Cy of relief: Pro-pot Iowa State student group wins free speech case

DES MOINES, Iowa — A federal judge ruled Friday that Iowa State University administrators violated the constitutional free speech rights of student members of a pro-marijuana group by barring them from using the university logos on T-shirts.

U.S. District Judge James Gritzner issued an order granting members of the ISU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws a permanent injunction which means university administrators cannot use a trademark policy to prevent the organization from printing shirts depicting a marijuana leaf.

“In this case, plaintiffs have shown injuries by demonstrating that they were not allowed to produce, wear and sell their desired T-shirts for raising awareness of their cause and that ISU administrators put unique burdens on both their and the group’s political expression,” Gritzner wrote.

Students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, former presidents of the group, sued in July 2014 alleging ISU withdrew its approval of one of the group’s marijuana-themed T-shirts featuring the school’s Cy mascot under pressure from donors and a group of conservative Republican lawmakers.

The school later rewrote its trademark guidelines to bar their logos in products that promote illegal drugs.

Although it means the group can design a university T-shirt with the marijuana leaf logo, the real victory is much larger, said the students’ attorney Robert Corn-Revere.

“It reaffirms the principle that students at state universities are protected by the First Amendment and the restrictions of those rights can come in many different forms and in this case it was by attempts to manipulate the school’s trademark policy,” he said.

He said the decision clearly shows Gritzner understood “this was a politically motivated decision that targeted this specific group and put special burdens on them because the administration had issues with their political message.”

Gritzner found that a reasonable person would understand that the university administrators’ actions treaded on the students’ First Amendment rights of political expression and association.

University spokeswoman Annette Hacker said the opinion is disappointing.

“Iowa State University will consult with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to determine if the order will be appealed,” she said in a statement.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office, which defended the university, says options are under review, including an appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The students may now file a lawsuit pursuing monetary damages against university administrators and recover their attorney fees and costs, Corn-Revere said.

Gritzner in his order denied the defense of qualified immunity for ISU president Steven Leath and senior vice president Warren Madden, meaning that they may be held personally liable for violating the students’ First Amendment rights.