Iowa State can not censor marijuana legalization shirts, Eight Circuit reaffirms

Students at Iowa State University can produce and wear T-shirts with the university logo and a pot leaf, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled.

In a decision issued by a three-judge panel last month, Iowa State was found to have violated its students’ First Amendment rights when it denied the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws permission to use the university’s trademarked name and logos. The ruling reaffirms an earlier opinion handed down by the Eight Circuit.

“We are gratified the Eighth Circuit reaffirmed its earlier holding that the First Amendment does not permit state university officials to condition benefits based on the viewpoint of student groups,” attorney Robert Corn-Revere, who represents the students, said in a statement. “We look forward to bringing this case to a close, or, if ISU chooses to appeal, litigating the matter to a final conclusion.”

The controversy began when the NORML chapter at Iowa State printed T-shirts that included the phrase “NORML ISU” along with the university’s mascot. On the shirt’s back, the design read “Freedom is NORML at ISU” and featured an image of a pot leaf. Though the university initially approved the design, it later blocked the students from printing more T-shirts, claiming the design violated the school’s trademark policy.

The students sued in 2014, and the lawsuit became part of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. In early 2016, a U.S. district judge ruled in favor of the students, stating that administrators violated the students’ free speech rights. The university appealed, and the Student Press Law Center wrote a friend-of-the-court brief urging the appeals court to affirm the district judge’s ruling.

In February 2017, the appeals court ruled unanimously, agreeing with the district judge.

The university administrators asked the appeals court to rehear the case, and when it did, the panel reaffirmed their earlier decision. This time, however, it was a 2-1 vote, with the one judge ruling that the university officials should be protected by immunity.

“It was a really decisive opinion,” said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, director of litigation at FIRE. “It made very, very clear that when a university offers a benefit for all of its students to use — as it did here with its trademark policy — they can’t take that benefit away because a group’s message isn’t politically expedient or is controversial or political or whatnot.”

Now, the university has submitted a motion for rehearing en banc, meaning all of the Eighth Circuit court judges would hear the case, not just the standard three. The motion is currently pending. If the Eighth Circuit decides not to rehear the case, the university then has the option to go to the Supreme Court.

This recent ruling may affect another T-shirt controversy at University of Missouri-Columbia, which is also in the Eighth Circuit. A similar situation, the NORML chapter at MU wanted to print T-shirts with MU’s logo along with a pot leaf, but the request was denied. Though the university allowed its name to be used as part of the organization name (NORML at MU), it refused the chapter’s request because MU’s licensing policy does not allow the use of drug- or alcohol-related images.

“I can’t say with any certainty how [the ruling] will affect the Mizzou case because the facts are, of course, different between Mizzou and the ISU case,” Beck-Coon said. However, she said if there are facts in the Mizzou case that show the university was discriminating against NORML over the basis of the group’s message, then the ISU ruling would be helpful in resolving that lawsuit.