Iowa State University (ISU) students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh were members of the university’s student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU). In 2012, NORML ISU received university approval for a T-shirt featuring ISU mascot Cy the Cardinal’s head in place of the “O” in NORML. Following criticism from members of the public and state officials, the university not only rescinded approval for the T-shirt, but adopted and enforced new regulations specifically designed to restrict NORML ISU’s use of university trademarks.
In both 2013 and 2014, the university rejected other T-shirt designs from the chapter, including one that simply said “NORML ISU Supports Legalizing Marijuana,” under the hastily-drawn trademark policy that broadly prohibited student groups from associating the ISU name with promoting “dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors” and “drugs and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful.” ISU’s targeted use of the policy to keep the NORML chapter from printing T-shirts demonstrated that the school confused political advocacy with illegal conduct, in violation of the First Amendment.
On July 1, 2014, the students filed suit against ISU with FIRE’s assistance. In January 2016, a federal court entered a permanent injunction barring the university from using its trademark policy to stop ISU NORML from printing t-shirts depicting a marijuana leaf. That order was upheld twice by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit , which also upheld the denial of qualified immunity for the individual defendants. After the Eighth Circuit rulings, ISU agreed to bring the case to a close, making the district court’s injunction permanent, paying each of the two students $75,000 in damages, and agreeing to pay attorney’s fees. Between the court of appeals and the district court, the students were ultimately awarded nearly $1 million in damages and fees.