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FIRE lawsuit against Iowa State University administrators ends with nearly $1 million in damages and fees

After nearly four years and a trip to and from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Gerlich v. Leath — FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project lawsuit against Iowa State University administrators — came to an end this week with an order entering judgment for the plaintiffs and awarding them nearly $600,000 in attorney’s fees and costs. Adding to amounts previously awarded or settled on in the course of litigation, Iowa State University defendants are responsible for nearly $1 million in damages and attorney’s fees for the case.

The events precipitating the suit began in 2012, when ISU approved a T-shirt design for the university’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (ISU NORML) featuring ISU mascot Cy the Cardinal’s head in place of the “O” in NORML. After receiving blowback from the public and state officials, ISU rescinded its approval of the T-shirt and adopted new regulations that would limit ISU NORML’s use of university trademarks in the future. The group’s T-shirt designs were repeatedly rejected in 2013 and 2014, including even a design reading “NORML ISU Supports Legalizing Marijuana.”

ISU NORML officers Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh filed suit against ISU administrators on July 1, 2014, the day FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project launched with the filing of four lawsuits challenging student censorship across the country, including at ISU.

In January 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a permanent injunction barring ISU from using its trademark policy to stop ISU NORML from printing T-shirts depicting a marijuana leaf. The Honorable James E. Gritzner held that the ISU defendants discriminated against ISU NORML based on viewpoint, in violation of the First Amendment, by rejecting the group’s T-shirt designs “due to the messages they expressed” in order to “maintain favor with Iowa political figures.” Judge Gritzner went on to deny qualified immunity to the defendant administrators — allowing them to be held personally liable for violating the plaintiffs’ rights — finding that “a reasonable person would understand that Defendant’s actions treaded on Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights of political expression and association.”

The ISU defendants appealed to the Eighth Circuit, but in February 2017, a three-judge panel of the court of appeals upheld the district court’s permanent injunction, agreeing that the administrators unlawfully discriminated against ISU NORML based on the political viewpoints they expressed. The Eighth Circuit vacated that opinion, only to issue a new decision in June 2017 reaffirming its previous findings and upholding the district court’s denial of qualified immunity for the individual defendants.  

After the Eighth Circuit denied the defendants’ request for the full court to rehear the case en banc in August 2017, the three-judge panel awarded Gerlich and Furleigh’s attorneys nearly $200,000 in fees and costs for their work on the appeal.

With the case headed back to the district court for further litigation, the ISU defendants agreed to settle the case in early January by paying Gerlich and Furleigh $75,000 each in damages, making the district court’s injunction against ISU permanent, and allowing Judge Gritzner to decide the attorney’s fees plaintiffs were entitled to for work litigating before the trial court.

Finally, Judge Gritzner brought Gerlich and Furleigh’s case to a close this week when he approved an agreement by the parties for ISU defendants to pay close to $600,000 for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and costs. The judge signed off on the agreement and ordered final judgement entered in Gerlich and Furleigh’s favor.

“After nearly four years it is gratifying to bring this case to a successful conclusion with students’ First Amendment rights vindicated, our clients duly compensated for what they went through, and the system working as it should,” said Robert Corn-Revere, who represented the students with his Davis Wright Tremaine colleagues Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman.

FIRE is thrilled to see this chapter in our ongoing Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project close with such a resounding victory for student speech nationwide. We are so grateful to Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh for having the courage to stand up against censorship — and to keep standing up, year after year, throughout this case. We are also grateful as ever to Robert Corn-Revere, whose “expertise and command of the legal principles in the area” were duly noted by the district court, and the talented team at Davis Wright Tremaine.

We’ll see you all in the next chapter.

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