NEWS RELEASE: SPLC asks federal appeals court to protect student groups' right to use college logos


May 18, 2016     
Contact: Frank LoMonte, Executive Director or 202-872-1704

        Students have a protected First Amendment right to use the names and logos of their colleges in conjunction with publishing speech without regard to the viewpoint they express, the Student Press Law Center argues in a brief filed with the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in support of students at Iowa State University.

         In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Tuesday, the SPLC asks the Eighth Circuit to affirm a federal district court’s ruling that Iowa State violated the constitutional rights of a student drug-legalization advocacy group by enforcing viewpoint-based restrictions on speech, including forbidding the use of university logos and insignias.  

       The brief in the case, Gerlich v. Leath, was prepared by noted First Amendment legal scholar Eugene Volokh with the assistance of students Ian Daily, Eric Sefton and Sydney Sherman in the UCLA School of Law Banister First Amendment Clinic.

        The case centered on a T-shirt designed for publicity and fundraising purposes by NORML, the Iowa State campus chapter of a national organization that advocates for legalizing marijuana. After receiving complaints after a student was seen in the Des Moines newspaper wearing the shirt – which included Iowa State’s logo and mascot, along with a cartoon drawing of a marijuana leaf – Iowa State’s president Steven Leath convened a meeting with the university’s legal office, ordering that the use of the logos be reconsidered. 

        Although Iowa State had approved the use of its marks in association with other controversial student groups – including those involved with abortion rights, gun rights and even sexual bondage – the university’s trademark office revoked its approval of NORML’s designs, claiming they associated ISU with advocacy of drugs. They also placed NORML under a regime of mandatory pre-approval of its designs – applicable to no other student organization – and removed the chapter’s adviser.

        Two former presidents of the NORML chapter, Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh sued Iowa State President Steven Leath and three other administrators, represented by attorney Robert Corn-Revere of the Washington, D.C., office of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. 

        In January, a U.S. district court judge found that Iowa State violated the students’ First Amendment rights by imposing viewpoint-based restraints solely for the reason of cultivating a more favorable image with critics. The judge rejected Iowa State’s claim that university trademarks are “government speech” that receives no First Amendment protection, noting that the university had freely lent the insignias to other student groups without intending to communicate any message. Iowa State is appealing the judge’s decision.

        The SPLC amicus brief argues that a logo licensing system on a state university campus is a “limited public forum” to which rigorous First Amendment protections apply. Once government property is found to be a “forum” supporting speech, content-based restrictions on speakers are presumed to be unconstitutional unless justified by some overriding public interest. In this case, the government’s only interest was in mollifying a state legislator whose office complained about the association of ISU’s name and logo with drug use.

        “It’s very important for journalists that we establish that students’ speech is not ‘government speech’ by or on behalf of their institutions just because the name or logo of the institution is associated with the publication,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “This case exemplifies the mentality of ‘image control run wild’ on campuses that presents an increasing threat to journalism. Public universities everywhere need to be on notice that the proper and legally permissible response to critics who are offended by students’ speech is never to shut down the speech.” 

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship.