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Victory in Eighth Circuit: Iowa State Can’t Censor Pot Legalization T-Shirts

  • University used trademark policy to censor pro-legalization campus group
  • Appeals Court upholds lower court ruling barring university’s censorship
  • Decision is the tenth consecutive victory for FIRE’s litigation project

ST. PAUL, Minn. Feb. 13, 2017—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has notched its biggest victory to date.  

Today, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit unanimously upheld a federal district court’s decision to permanently bar Iowa State University (ISU) from using its trademark policy to prevent a campus student group from printing T-shirts advocating marijuana legalization. The ruling is the tenth consecutive victory for the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project (including FIRE’s victory in this case at the district level) and the first from a federal court of appeals.

Plaintiffs Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich were ISU students and leaders of the university’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU) when they filed their lawsuit on July 1, 2014, with assistance from FIRE. Theirs was one of four First Amendment lawsuits filed that day to launch FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, an announcement made at a National Press Club press conference covered by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and many other outlets nationwide.   

In today’s opinion, the Eighth Circuit held that ISU administrators had engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, violating Furleigh and Gerlich’s First Amendment rights. NORML ISU had multiple T-shirt designs rejected by the university and was subject to unusually heavy, politically motivated scrutiny when applying to use ISU logos under the school’s trademark policy.

The court found that once ISU made its trademarks generally available to student groups, it could not then deny their use based on the message of the group seeking to use them. In upholding the federal district court’s January 2016 ruling, the Eighth Circuit pointed to evidence that ISU subjected NORML ISU to “an unusual trademark approval process” after an article about the group in The Des Moines Register caught the attention of state officials.

“It’s really exciting to see such a strong unanimous decision coming out of the court, backing what we knew to be true from day one,” said Gerlich. “I’m excited that this case sets a precedent that protects students locally and throughout the nation.”

“We are gratified that the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the district court’s well-reasoned opinion,” said attorney Robert Corn-Revere, who represented the students with his Davis Wright Tremaine colleagues Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman. “The decision confirms that universities cannot grant or withhold benefits based on students’ political views. And that includes their trademark programs.”

“We are so pleased to see Paul and Erin’s victory unanimously affirmed by the Eighth Circuit,” said FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “Paul and Erin had the courage to stand up for their First Amendment rights, and thousands of students in seven states will now benefit from their commitment.”

The Student Press Law Center, Ratio Christi, Students for Life of America, Christian Legal Society, Young America’s Foundation, and Young Americans for Liberty filed friend-of-the-court briefs before the Eighth Circuit in support of Furleigh and Gerlich.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.


Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

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