Two Iowa State University students are suing school officials after the university prohibited a pro-marijuana group from using the Cy logo on T-shirts that also featured cannabis leaves.
At issue is whether ISU, a government entity, can choose which groups are allowed to use the logo based on political or social beliefs in an effort to protect its brand. It’s a lawsuit that will balance free speech rights against trademark law, said Christopher Proskey, a Des Moines patent and intellectual property attorney.
“Somebody else is using your mark in a way that damages the image that you’re building for your trademark,” he said. “But, the other side of the coin is that governments and institutions cannot be picking favorites.”
Attorneys for ISU students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh filed the federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa asking a judge to rule that the school violated students’ First Amendment rights by banning the Cy logo on shirts made by the campus chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Gerlich and Furleigh are the student groups’ current president and vice-president, according to the lawsuit, which is part of a nationwide litigation campaign by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.
ISU officials banned the Cy logo on NORML’s T-shirts in 2012 after the group’s then-president displayed the shirt in a photo in The Des Moines Register.
The photo prompted complaints from lawmakers that the shirt featuring both Cy and a cannabis leaf made it look like the school endorsed marijuana legalization, officials said. The chorus of critics included Steven Lukan, the director of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy, who contacted ISU President Steven Leath with concerns after he was invited to one of the group’s meetings last year, according to the lawsuit.
The T-shirt had previously been approved by the university before the photo ran in the newspaper, according to the lawsuit. In January 2013, the school responded to the controversy by updating its trademark policy to prohibit any uses of the Cy image tied to “drugs and drug paraphernalia,” according to the lawsuit.
Since the change, T-shirt designs featuring the ISU initials and a cannabis leaf have been twice rejected, according to the lawsuit. Other shirt designs without a marijuana leaf have been approved by the school on two occasions.
ISU officials had not received a copy of the lawsuit on Tuesday, said spokesman John McCarroll in a statement. The university believes it can legally make determinations about who is allowed to use its trademarks, he said.
“Student organizations at Iowa State University have the right to express their views, but they can’t attribute those views to the university,” he said. “Iowa State has the right and obligation to manage the use of our university trademarks.”
However, the case appears to be a classic example of a government entity discriminating against a group because of political speech, said Robert Shibley, a senior vice president with FIRE. It wouldn’t be constitutionally right if the university allows some student groups to use the logo but not others, he said.
“Are they making viewpoint-based determinations and discriminating against one viewpoint?” he said.
“Here it seems likely they did do that and they actually set forth a policy that allowed them to do that.”
It’s important to note that ISU NORML’s message is not about using marijuana illegally, but changing laws nationwide that currently prohibit the drug, he said. It’s an important public policy topic at a time when two states have legalized cannabis for recreational use and others, including Iowa, have legalized it for limited medical use, the lawsuit said.
Since the university revised its policy surrounding the trademarks in 2013, the trademark and licensing office has rejected 289 requests to use the university’s trademarks, according to data provided by the university. That number includes 163 rejections in 2013 and 126 so far in 2014.
The lawsuit names Leath; Warren Madden, the senior vice president of business and financial affairs; Thomas Hill, the senior vice president for student affairs; and Leesha Zimmerman, the program director of the trademark and licensing office, as defendants.
Other court filings
The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, coordinated four court filings on Tuesday including the one in Iowa against Iowa State University.
The lawsuits are part of a national effort to eliminate what FIRE believes is unconstitutional speech codes.
The other lawsuits were against Ohio University, Chicago State University and Citrus College (Calif.).