By Catherine Sevcenko at The Huffington Post
Iowa State University invites its students to craft their own educational “adventure” as they obtain a college education. Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich are students at ISU whose adventure has included censorship and, now, a federal lawsuit.
Erin and Paul are president and vice-president of the the Iowa State Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU). Their group advocates the legalization of marijuana, which even the White House Office of Drug Policy acknowledges “is a topic of significant public discourse in the United States.” Whether they are right or wrong as a matter of policy makes no difference; their right to argue for a change in the law is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
This may sound like the stuff of a 5th grade civics class, but administrators at ISU must have been absent that day. In November 2012, an article on marijuana legalization appeared in The Des Moines Register, featuring a photo of one of the group’s founders wearing a t-shirt that said “NORML ISU” on the front, with the head of Cy the Cardinal replacing the “O,” and “Freedom is NORML at ISU,” decorated with an image of a cannabis leaf on the back. The University received some complaints that the t-shirt advocated marijuana use and so withdrew approval of the t-shirt, removed the group’s adviser, and then changed its trademark use regulations to ban messages that promoted “dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors.”
You might wonder why the University had the authority to approve the t-shirt of a student organization. For the answer, you have to dig around in the University’s regulations, but the short version is that the University controls its trademarks, which include the abbreviation “ISU” and “Iowa State University.” It also requires student groups to identify themselves by their official names, which, not surprisingly, often include some version of Iowa State University.
Of course, a trademark holder may prevent its mark from being associated with something disreputable, but advocating for a change in the marijuana laws is not the same as thing as smoking pot. ISU’s claim that it is merely protecting its trademark is nothing more than an excuse to censor politically disfavored speech.
Denying NORML ISU the right to produce a t-shirt with a representation of a cannabis leaf on it violates the First Amendment. A government entity, including a public university, may not suppress speech because it doesn’t like what the speaker is saying. If ISU administrators don’t think marijuana should be legalized, that’s fine–but they can’t use their governmental authority to silence those who disagree with them.
Universities routinely censor groups using excuses like this. But this time, ISU administrators miscalculated by censoring a group of students who are used to fighting to be heard. On July 1, 2014, Erin and Paul filed a suit in federal court asking that ISU’s trademark policy be declared unconstitutional. We at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (where I work) stand by them in this endeavor. FIRE arranged for Erin and Paul to be represented by Robert Corn-Revere and his legal team from Davis Wright Tremaine, a major national law firm.
In fact, this suit is part of a larger litigation project called Stand Up For Speech, designed to get public universities to stop these kind of shenanigans and respect the free speech rights of their students and faculty. Along with Erin and Paul, students and faculty from Ohio University, Citrus College in California and Chicago State University also filed suits on July 1 challenging unconstitutional speech policies.
As we have recently celebrated Independence Day, it is important to remember another universal truth: Those in positions of authority will always try to censor dissenting voices. But the revolutionary spirit lives on in students such as Paul and Erin who are willing to fight, in court if need be, to keep America’s universities open to all ideas.