FIRE Litigation Coordinator Catherine Sevcenko takes to The Huffington Post today to explain why Iowa State University students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh are standing up for speech at their institution by filing a First Amendment lawsuit.
As Torch readers will remember from this month’s press conference launching our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, Paul and Erin are the leaders of Iowa State’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). They came to FIRE for help after the university first revoked approval for the group’s T-shirt, then altered its trademark policies to prevent Paul, Erin, and their fellow NORML members from making any other shirts that, in the opinion of ISU administrators, promote “dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors.”
Catherine explains why Iowa State’s actions run afoul of the First Amendment:
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.
For the rest of Catherine’s op-ed, click on over to The Huffington Post.