Iowa State University Students Win Federal Court Case Over Right to Print Pot-Themed T-Shirts
Representatives from ISU’s NORML chapter have been fighting administrators over the weed leaf graphic since 2012.
Published on June 15, 2017

A federal court has ruled in favor of two Iowa State University students who attempted to print t-shirts with the school’s logo and a marijuana leaf in 2012. The shirts were originally produced to promote the University’s chapter of NORML, but became a symbol of campus free speech after pressure from state legislators led university officials to ban the graphic. 

According to the Des Moines Register, Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, the students responsible for the NORML shirt, will now be able to not only print and distribute the clothing, but also seek financial damages from the school administrators found guilty of violating their First Amendment rights.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that ISU administrators, including former Senior Vice President Warren Madden, former Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Tom Hill and director of ISU's trademark office, Leesha Zimmerman, violated Gerlich and Furleigh’s right to free speech and can now be held personally responsible for damages. 

The t-shirts themselves had the words “ISU NORML” and a graphic of the university’s mascot, Cy the Cardinal, printed on the front, with the words “Freedom is NORML at ISU,” along with a cannabis leaf printed on the back. Following initial university approval in 2012, pressure from local conservative lawmakers and administrators, the shirts were banned, prompting a three-yearsof court battle.  

The students originally sued in 2014, but were not given a court date until 2016, when a U.S. District Judge ruled in favor of the students. Still, the university appealed twice, and in their final decision, federal appeals judges were clear in their ruling that “universities cannot discriminate against students or their advocacy organizations based on political views.”

And while the ISU case deals specifically with cannabis freedom, the students’ case found support from some unlikely campus organizations, including a conservative led anti-abortion group, who say the ruling has far-reaching implications for student free speech rights. 

"What we find with many universities is they're violating students' free speech rights and there's little accountability.” Iowa attorney Casey Mattox said. “A decision like this helps to build accountability into the law where they have to make sure they're not violating students' rights rather than just being able to rely upon on the courts later."

Administrators could appeal to the Supreme Court, but with every ruling so far favoring the students, it seems unlikely that they will pursue further legal action.

Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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