Wednesday, December 6, 2023

This University’s Attempt To Ban Pro-Marijuana Shirts Backfired Spectacularly

Back in 2012, the Des Moines Register wrote a fairly innocuous story regarding efforts to legalize marijuana. It included a spotlight on Iowa State University’s student chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The reporter had quoted a student representative and featured a t-shirt made by the group that read “Freedom is NORML at ISU” with a small marijuana symbol attached. The school’s mascot was also depicted on the shirt. Because NORML ISU is a registered student organization, they had the legal right to include school iconography. In fact, the school also had approved the group’s shirt design.

But when the article was featured in the newspaper, former ISU President Steven Leath saw it as a potential public relations problem for the school. School administrators then prohibited the group from printing more of the shirt and blocked another shirt design that had marijuana leaves in it. Then they rewrote trademark guidelines so that any shirts that featured “drugs and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful” could not use the school logos.

NORML’s ISU chapter and the university then engaged in a four-year-long battle over fair trademark policy, with NORML coming out on top. The U.S District Court for the Southern District of Iowa ruled the school’s action unconstitutional and permanently denied the school from discriminating against NORML in the future.

The school appealed, and another year-long legal battle ensued. But this week a settlement was reached between the parties, which will cost Iowa taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. The State Appeal Board awarded two leaders of the university’s NORML chapter $150,000 in damages. In addition, the board voted to pay $193,000 to two law firms that represented the group in their defense against the university’s unsuccessful appeals. A judge will also decide further legal restitution owed to the lawyers for their trial work.

These payouts will come out of the state budget.

“It is an unambiguous win for our clients and for the First Amendment and for an understanding that violating people’s rights isn’t free,” the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Robert Corn-Revere, told the Associated Press. “One reason we urge universities to settle early is to avoid these kinds of expenses.”

The injunction that bans Iowa State from acting in a discriminatory manner with its trademark policy and requires the university to permit NORML to create apparel that features marijuana will remain in effect.


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