University of Missouri censors T-shirt design for student organization

MISSOURI — A student at the University of Missouri said his First Amendment rights were violated when the university refused to approve a T-shirt design for a campus organization he’s involved with.

Benton Berigan, the outgoing president of the National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws at MU, said the university has refused to approve a T-shirt design featuring MU’s logo along with a marijuana leaf.

“(The university said) you can use the name of your organization with the university but then that just can’t appear with a pot leaf,” Berigan said. “I took it as, ‘Well, they’re trying to censor a pot leaf with any of the material we put out.’”

Last fall, the organization, which has been recognized by the university since 2000, sought approval of the design to sell T-shirts as part of a fundraiser. At MU, student groups interested in on-campus fundraising must get approval from the MU Organization Resource Group.

Berigan said ORG originally told him he would need to get authorization from Mizzou’s Office of Licensing and Trademarks before receiving approval. The university eventually denied his request because MU’s licensing policy does not allow the use of drug or alcohol related images, he said.

“I kindly responded with a page or two just describing why I felt that our use of a cannabis leaf was in no way insinuating drug use, was not promoting drug use,” Berigan said.

He said NORML uses the marijuana leaf because it is an effective identifying tool and is consistent with the group’s mission, which is to reform drug laws. Berigan said he viewed the university’s rejection of the T-shirt as direct censorship to NORML’s message and its freedom of expression.

The organization has sold T-shirts in the past, but the group wanted to display T-shirts with new designs, he said.

“We’re trying to rebrand our organization and create a more effective logo,” Berigan said.

Berigan said he read a story about a lawsuit involving the NORML chapter at Iowa State University and its T-shirt design, which prompted him to contact the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

In 2012, ISU’s NORML chapter T-shirts featuring marijuana leaves and the university’s name were declared “unfit” by the university and production of the T-shirts was halted. Two students filed a lawsuit against ISU, and in January, a U.S. district court judge ruled in favor of the student group, stating the group members’ First Amendment rights were violated.

ISU has appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Missouri and Iowa are both a part of the 8th Circuit.

FIRE has written two letters to the University of Missouri on behalf of MU’s NORML chapter but has not received a substantial response. FIRE sent its first letter April 22 and the university’s receipt of the letter was acknowledged the same day. FIRE sent another letter May 20 requesting a “substantive response” by June 3.

In an email to SPLC, MU spokesman Christian Basi said the university was still reviewing FIRE’s letter as of June 22.

“The university takes the issue of free expression seriously as it is the cornerstone of academic inquiry,” Basi wrote.

Berigan said FIRE is willing to help the organization pursue legal action, but he said he hopes the university will consider the case at ISU and allow the group to use the marijuana leaf and university logo on the T-shirt.

“Really, what we’re hoping for right now, is that the University of Missouri recognizes the decision by the eighth circuit court in regards to the Iowa State case and that they simply allow us to use the marijuana leaf in conjunction with our name and on promotional materials,” he said.

SPLC staff writer Kaelynn Knoernschild can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318.

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