FIRE’s Sevcenko Breaks Down Federal Court Ruling on Iowa State Lawsuit

January 12, 2015

Readers of The Torch may remember FIRE’s Catherine Sevcenko’s helpful letter to the Iowa State Daily last October, pointing out a number of Iowa State University’s (ISU’s) failures to respect its students’ First Amendment rights. In that letter, Catherine noted a lawsuit against ISU that FIRE has coordinated as part of our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, student leaders of ISU’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), are suing the school after it revoked approval of a T-shirt that included the school’s mascot and later rejected a design with a NORML slogan that was accompanied by a marijuana leaf.

This past weekend, Catherine wrote for Iowa’s The Gazette to call attention to the most recent development in that case, a ruling by a federal judge that will allow the lawsuit to go forward. Last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Gritzner denied ISU’s motion to dismiss the suit. Catherine explains the basis of the school’s motion and the judge’s reason for rejecting it:

[M]any in the ISU community did not take the plaintiffs, Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, seriously. ISU claimed they were legitimately protecting their trademarks. Other students accused the pair of stirring up trouble. Federal judge James Gritzner disagreed, finding that “[n]o infringement is involved in the case at hand” and that the students had stated valid constitutional claims.

This lawsuit brings to mind a decades-old Supreme Court case that recognized students’ right to express themselves freely on school grounds, as Catherine recounts:

Over 40 years ago, Iowa high school students John and Mary Beth Tinker wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The school sent them home. They sued, taking their fight all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The result was the landmark decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which affirmed that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Catherine concludes by stressing the common thread running through the two cases—the students’ “right to speak their consciences and advocate change”—and she praises the outcome of the judge’s ruling:

Paul and Erin now carry that torch. Trial in Gerlich v. Leath is scheduled for December. … Judge Gritzner’s order demonstrates that Paul and Erin had the right to protest their treatment. Perhaps it also will help other students and administrators at ISU realize what is at stake.

Read Catherine’s article in full in The Gazette.

Schools:  Iowa State University

Cases:  Iowa State University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit