Table of Contents

Reefer madness: Iowa State University punishes club lacrosse team for parking ISU van in parking lot near marijuana dispensary

ISU seems to have learned nothing since 2017 when it paid almost $1 million for censoring students’ cannabis-related T-shirts.
Iowa State University sign and campanile with green environment and blue sky


Iowa State administrators sure hate marijuana. 

Undeterred by a very pricey federal court defeat after censoring a student group’s weed-related T-shirts, administrators have now set their sights on the club lacrosse team for an even more tenuous offense: parking a university-loaned van outside a dispensary while they ate lunch nearby. 

It all started in November when the group rented an ISU van to travel to a game in Colorado, and parked it outside a lawfully operating dispensary near a restaurant. A third party took a (since-deleted) photo, uploaded it to ISU Barstool, and — because the university has to punish someone when even legal drugs even appear to be involved — ISU swooped in to revoke the group’s vehicle-use privileges for the year. 

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


Of all universities, Iowa State has almost a million reasons to know that censoring students for drug-related speech is a bad trip. In 2012, the university’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — NORML — designed a T-shirt featuring the school’s mascot, Cy the Cardinal, with phrases like “Legalize It,” and “NORML ISU Supports Legalizing Marijuana.” 

While ISU initially approved the design, it rescinded its approval for use of the mark in response to blowback from the public and state officials. FIRE sued and in 2017, after years of litigation and multiple unfavorable court rulings, including by the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, ISU agreed to pay nearly $1 million in damages and fees for its clear First Amendment violation.

It seems ISU won’t just violate your First Amendment rights if you talk about weed. They’ll do it even if someone randomly mentions you and Ms. Mary Jane in the same social media post. 

ISU Senior Assistant Director of Sports Programs Nathan Pick justified the suspension by calling the students’ action a “poor representation” of the school and was concerned that it could result in a “negative reputation for Iowa State University.” Pick then cited the ISU Sport Clubs Manual, which outlines potential infractions, including, “Displaying conduct that is incompatible with the University’s function as an educational institution and the purpose of the Sports Club Program.” 

ISU can hate drugs. But the law is clear: ISU cannot punish students who feel otherwise. 

On Friday, FIRE wrote to ISU, reminding the administration that “even if the club lacrosse team was responsible for taking and posting the photo, ISU still would not have the authority to punish these students, as expression that damages the university’s reputation remains protected by the First Amendment.”

The administration’s decision to punish the club lacrosse team flies in the face of well-established case law, which prohibits public universities from punishing students for expression that may embarrass the university or damage its reputation. 

FIRE is also concerned by the clear lack of due process ISU afforded these students. It yanked the group’s rental privileges before meeting its legal obligation to notify the students of the specific policies they were alleged to have violated and to give them an opportunity to respond. Given the opportunity, the student-athletes would have been able to clarify why the vehicle was parked where it was and that a third party posted the photo without the team’s knowledge.

ISU can hate drugs. But the law is clear: ISU cannot punish students who feel otherwise. And it certainly can’t punish students for inadvertently getting roped into someone else’s drug-related social media post.  

We’ve given ISU until February 17 to recommit to meeting its First Amendment obligations and restore the club lacrosse team’s privileges.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.