By Vanessa Miller at The Gazzette
As part of a national free speech litigation project, two Iowa State students on Tuesday filed a lawsuit accusing university administrators of violating the rights of a student group pushing for the legalization of marijuana.
The lawsuit — filed by the president and vice president of ISU’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML — is one of four new lawsuits included in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s nationwide effort to “eliminate unconstitutional speech codes through targeted First Amendment lawsuits.”
The “Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project” began with two lawsuits filed in the past nine months and continued Tuesday with the four new lawsuits — including the one at ISU. According to the Philadelphia-based non-profit foundation, lawsuits will continue “until campuses understand that time is finally up for unconstitutional speech codes in academia.”
In the ISU case, NORML ISU President Paul Gerlich and Vice President Erin Furleigh accuse four top administrators — including ISU President Steven Leath — of unlawfully rescinding and denying several T-shirt designs and hastily crafting a policy that restricts student and faculty rights to free expression.
According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, NORML ISU has been an approved campus organization since 2012, and it lists more than 500 members on its website. The group meets regularly around its efforts to promote better understanding of current laws and push for “more reasonable” state and federal marijuana laws.
The group in October 2012 submitted a T-shirt design to the ISU Trademark Licensing Office that included the group’s name, the ISU mascot — Cy the Cardinal — and an image of a cannabis leaf. According to the lawsuit, the shirt met university guidelines and was approved for production and sale.
But a few weeks later, the Des Moines Register ran a front-page article that included a photo of the then-NORML ISU president wearing one of the shirts, and two ISU officials called a meeting with the group’s leadership. At that meeting, Warren Madden, senior vice president of ISU’s division of business and financial affairs, and Thomas Hill, senior vice president for ISU student affairs, informed the group that the T-shirt design’s approval had been rescinded, according to the lawsuit.
“Hill and Madden contended that having the school’s mascot’s head replace the ‘O’ of NORML suggested that ISU itself was supporting marijuana legalization,” according to the lawsuit.
The students said the administration was reacting to complaints and a critical letter to the editor from citizens and legislators. And, according to the lawsuit, Hill and Madden admitted that they “feared that the T-shirt posed a financial threat to ISU, either through loss of state funding or alumni donations.”
Additionally, two months later, the ISU Trademark Licensing Office enacted revisions to its guidelines restricting designs using ISU marks that, among other things, promote dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors — such as drugs, according to the lawsuit.
“Despite the purported attempt to clarify ISU’s policy, the new trademark guidelines are vague and overbroad on their face and allow unbridled administrative discretion,” according to the lawsuit.
The guidelines, the students contend, do not define the term “promote” or explain what constitutes a “dangerous” or “unhealthy” product, action or behavior.
NORML ISU representatives submitted subsequent T-shirt designs for approval, all of which were denied, according to the lawsuit. Due to the rejections, “NORML ISU has not produced the T-shirt, and its members have been restricted in their ability to express their beliefs.”
The national Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notified ISU in March “that its trademark guidelines are unconstitutional.” ISU legal counsel disputed those claims, according to the lawsuit, leading to this week’s lawsuit alleging free speech violations.
The lawsuit is asking a court to find that ISU’s Trademark Licensing Policy is unconstitutional, that it violated the group’s rights, and that it can’t be enforced. Students also are seeking unspecified monetary damages.
ISU spokesman John McCarroll said university student organizations have the right to express their views.
“But they can’t attribute those views to the university,” McCarroll said. “Iowa State has the right and obligation to manage the use of our university trademarks.”
The foundation, as part of its Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, has posted the formal complaint against ISU — along with lawsuits against Ohio University, Chicago State University and Citrus College for similar issues — on its website.
McCarroll said the university will review the complaint with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and file a response in court.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the national foundation behind the litigation project, said in a statement that his group has been fighting “unconstitutional campus speech codes” for 15 years.
“But more is needed,” he said.
By “imposing a real cost for violating First Amendment rights,” project officials said they aim to “reset the incentives that currently push colleges toward censoring student and faculty speech.”