Victory: Federal Court Orders Iowa State to Stop Censoring Student T-Shirts Advocating Marijuana Legalization
DES MOINES, Iowa, January 22, 2016—Today, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a permanent injunction barring Iowa State University (ISU) administrators from using a trademark policy to prevent the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU) from printing t-shirts depicting a marijuana leaf. Students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, both former presidents of the group, sued ISU in July 2014 as part of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
Because ISU had rejected the student group’s t-shirts “due to the messages they expressed” in an effort to “maintain favor with Iowa political figures,” the court found that ISU engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.
The court also denied the defense of qualified immunity to the named defendants, including ISU President Steven Leath and Senior Vice President Warren Madden, meaning that they may be held personally liable for violating Furleigh and Gerlich’s First Amendment rights. In so ruling, the court found that “a reasonable person would understand that Defendants’ actions treaded on Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights of political expression and association.”
Senior District Judge James Gritzner, who issued the ruling, observed that “[t]he development of First Amendment doctrine in the university context has repeatedly affirmed that student groups may not be denied benefits on the basis of their espoused views.” After reviewing the record, the court concluded that “Defendants took action specifically directed at NORML ISU based on their views and the political reaction to those views so that Defendants could maintain favor with Iowa political figures.”
In their original complaint, the students detailed how the university censored the group’s t-shirts based on their marijuana-related messaging and imagery, removed NORML ISU’s advisor, and implemented new guidelines for using ISU’s trademark in order to restrict NORML ISU’s speech. And in a January 2015 ruling, the court rejected every argument ISU made in its initial attempt to have the case dismissed.
Gerlich and Furleigh were represented by Robert Corn-Revere, Ronald London, and Lisa Zycherman of Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C.
“We are gratified that the court understood that ISU bowed to political pressure when it imposed special restrictions on NORML ISU,” said Corn-Revere. “This violated the most basic First Amendment requirement that the government cannot discriminate against a student group or its members because it disagrees with their viewpoints. This decision vindicates the right to freedom of expression not just for the courageous students who brought this case, but for the students of all public universities.”
While the court found that ISU’s actions and policies were “unconstitutionally discriminatory as applied to Plaintiffs,” it did not find ISU’s trademark policy to be facially unconstitutional because student groups are not punished for submitting t-shirt designs that are later rejected by ISU. As a result, the court did not find a sufficient chilling effect on other student groups to support invalidating the policy as written on First Amendment grounds.
“I’m very excited about this decision,” said student plaintiff Paul Gerlich. “It is extremely validating to have a federal judge agree that our First Amendment rights were violated. It’s also gratifying that this decision will help make sure that other students in Iowa, and maybe even nationally, won’t have to go through what we did.” Gerlich added, “And, of course, I can’t wait to see what new t-shirt designs we come up with.”
“NORML ISU is a student organization that faces judgment despite being involved in community service, political outreach, and organizing events centered on public education and policies,” said student plaintiff Erin Furleigh. “I hope this decision will remind our Iowa State community that college should be a welcoming place to absorb perspectives, share your own, and participate in productive, progressive dialogue.”
“This is a tremendous moment for Paul and Erin, whose courage in standing up for their rights has been vindicated,” said Catherine Sevcenko, FIRE’s Director of Litigation.
FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org