A first amendment victory was won this week, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit sided with 2 Iowa State University (ISU) students over whether or not they could print a T-shirt that had both the school logo and a marijuana leaf on it. The students, Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, belong to the ISU sector of a national group called the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
The Start of the Lawsuit
In 2012, the students planned to print T-shirts that had the school mascot in the O in NORML and a marijuana leaf on top. The back read “Freedom is NORML at ISU.” The school approved the T-shirt designs initially but after receiving calls from Iowa politicians, the T-shirt was blocked. Several designs later, the school would still not approve the T-shirts to be printed. The students reached out to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to get their advice and the organization were not only supportive to the students, but actually sponsored the lawsuit, which was filed in 2014.
A Matter of Political Pressure
Early in 2016, U.S. District Judge James Gritzner sided with the students, noting that 800 other organizations were allowed to use the logo on their T-shirts and the only reason the NORML students are being barred from the same rights is because the administration received political pressure. Emails revealed that the administration of ISU were receiving a lot of political pressure over the T-shirts. ISU president Steven Leath said during the trial that if a person from the governor’s office reaches out to him complaining, then he has to pay attention.
The Reasoning Behind the Verdict
The court however felt that political pressure was not a valid reason to block freedom of speech at the university. Likewise, when the school used it’s updated trademark guidelines which state that the logo cannot be used in conjunction with “designs that suggest promotion of dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors,” or “drugs and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful” as an argument against the T-shirts, the court disagreed, stating that, “NORML ISU’s use of the cannabis leaf does not violate ISU’s trademark policies because the organization advocates for reform to marijuana laws, not the illegal use of marijuana.”
The school administration were not happy with the results and filed an appeal, which ended on Monday with the court siding with the students once again, stating that “attempts to obtain approval to use ISU’s trademarks on NORML ISU’s merchandise amounted to constitutionally protected speech.” Constitutionally protected speech cannot be discriminated against simply because of a differing point of view unless the school can prove that restricting the view would serve a powerful government interest and the restrictions would have to be tightly tailored to serving that interest. In this case, the court found no valid reason for discriminating against the students. Political pressure was not an excusable reason. This is a win for the first amendment, marijuana reform and students across the entire country.