Iowa State Wrongly Discriminated Against Pro-Marijuana Student Group’s T-Shirts

There’s a group called the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, and they have a student chapter at Iowa State University. That chapter is an official student group like all the others. The student group made t-shirts that included their name, the Iowa State logo, and a marijuana leaf. The group had the university’s permission to use the Iowa State logo in their t-shirts. Nothing seemed unusual until it hit the press.

An ISU NORML T-shirt (Bill Neibergall/Des Moines Register)

A newspaper published pictures of the t-shirts along with an interview with the group’s president in which he said that he “had gotten nothing but support from the university.”

ISU started taking on water fast. The same day the story ran, state legislators sent ISU a formal legislative inquiry, asking if the school approved the shirts. The governor’s office called and emailed. University administrators (including the president), the school’s trademark office, and the public-relations office all scrambled to respond to the inquiries and figure out their response to this newspaper story. All they could really say was the truth: ‘Yes, we let them use our logo. No, we don’t agree with them.’

About a week later, the ISU NORML chapter applied for approval for another, similar t-shirt design. This time, their request was denied; the school’s trademark office said they wouldn’t approve of any design that included a marijuana leaf. They also made NORML get approval from administrators before going to the ISU trademark office–something no other student group had to do. (Things that make you go, “Hmm…..”)

When the group sued, it came out that the reason the university wouldn’t approve of the new t-shirt was because they disagreed with NORML’s pro-marijuana message. The Eighth Circuit ruled for the students because the school unconstitutionally engaged in viewpoint discrimination.

The Court also found that the university officials were not immune from being sued because the students’ First Amendment rights were clearly established at the time.

UPDATE (4/13/18): Iowa State ordered to pay $600,000 for violating the students’ rights.

Case: Gerlich v. Leath, No. 16-1518 (8th Cir. June 13, 2017) (opinion here)

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