When Iowa State University made the decision several years ago to ban a t-shirt created by the college’s NORML chapter, depicting a pot leaf in the design, the administration probably never once considered that their attempt at censoring the group would lead to a vicious spanking in federal court.
However, a ruling handed down earlier this week by U.S. District Court judge James Gritzner not only found the university’s actions to be unconstitutional, but there is some indication the group may be entitled to financial retribution for a violation to their civil rights.
The story begins in 2012, when the ISU trademark office approved a new t-shirt design for the folks of NORML, consisting of the university’s mascot on the front and a small pot leaf above the phrase, “Freedom is NORML at ISU” on the back.
Although there was not any concern over the presence of a cannabis leaf on official ISU apparel in the beginning, that all changed after a story published in The Des Moines Register, complete with photographs of members wearing the shirt, began to attract national attention. State lawmakers began raising hell over the embarrassment, and Governor Branstad’s office set out on a full-blown seek and destroy mission to find out how the image of an illegal substance managed to be branded alongside the logo of the state’s largest university.
Fearing the worst, university administrators did everything they could to prevent the organization from getting their hands on additional shirts—they even changed the trademark rules to effectively disqualify the pot leaf from any of NORML’s future designs.
In the lawsuit, which is part of the Stands Up For Speech Litigation Project, students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich argued that Steven Leath, Warren Madden, Thomas Hill and Leesha Zimmerman violated their constitutional freedom when they prevented the group from using the pot leaf only after receiving a tremendous amount of political backlash. Although the defendants argued their decision to ban the leaf was based solely on its implications of illegal activity, the plaintiffs maintained the visual was only an act of political activism—a right protected under the First Amendment.
Ultimately, the court sided with NORML ISU based on the fact that the university had blocked the design simply to appease state officials.
"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," Judge Gritzner wrote. “Once Defendants began receiving pressure from Iowa political figures, though, they immediately took measures to ensure there would be no political controversy over NORML ISU’s use of ISU marks. These actions were naturally predicated on the political content of the group’s views.”
The judge’s solution to this First Amendment blunder was fairly simple, as it prevents the university “from enforcing trademark licensing policies against Plaintiffs in a viewpoint discriminatory manner and from further prohibiting Plaintiffs from producing licensed apparel on the basis that their designs include the image of a similar cannabis leaf.”
There are talks of an appeal, but for now NORML ISU is free to brandish the pot leaf design on their apparel.
(Photo Courtesy of Leafly)