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 on T-shirts. (Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press file)

Pro-marijuana student group prevails again in T-shirt free speech case

DES MOINES, Iowa — In a case that free speech advocates are calling a victory for college students everywhere regardless of their political views, a federal appeals court on Monday ruled that Iowa State University cannot prevent a marijuana law reform advocacy group from distributing a T-shirt with the Iowa State University mascot on one side and a marijuana leaf on the other.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said ISU administrators including President Steven Leath, Senior Vice President Warren Madden and two others violated First Amendment rights of two students who were top officers of the ISU chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The students, Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, planned in 2012 to print T-shirts depicting “NORML ISU” on the front with the “O” represented by Cy the Cardinal, the university’ mascot. On the back the shirt read, “Freedom is NORML at ISU” with a small cannabis leaf above NORML.

Even though the university approved the group’s original design that incorporated the mascot and a marijuana leaf, Leath and the others blocked it claiming it violated the school’s trademark policy after getting pressure from conservative lawmakers and an appointee of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad who saw a story about the group’s planned T-shirt in a Des Moines Register article.

The students sued in July 2014 and early last year U.S. District Judge James Gritzner ruled the school’s policy violated the students’ free speech rights and barred the university from prohibiting printing the T-shirt. Leath and the other ISU administrators appealed.

The appeals court agreed with Gritzner’s ruling.

“The defendants’ rejection of NORML ISU’s designs discriminated against that group on the basis of the group’s viewpoint,” the justices wrote.

The court concluded that the ISU administrators’ unusual trademark approval process for the NORML group was motivated at least in part by pressure from Iowa politicians.

The case, even though it centers on NORML, a group favoring marijuana legalization, drew support from several conservative organizations including the anti-abortion group Students for Life of America and the Christian Legal Society.

“This decision protects, not just for this group but for all these groups, the ability to participate in the marketplace of ideas and not be discriminated against because the government doesn’t like your views,” the conservative groups’ attorney Casey Mattox said.

Furleigh and Gerlich’s attorney, Robert Corn-Revere, said the case confirms that universities cannot discriminate against students or their advocacy organizations based on political views.

“People from all across the political spectrum have felt the sting of having officials who don’t like their political views make decisions based them. So, this is an opinion that helps people across the political spectrum,” he said.

ISU spokesman John McCarroll said administrators are reviewing the decision and have not decided whether to appeal for an 8th Circuit rehearing or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider hearing the case. He offered no further comment.

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