Iowa State University NORML Chapter Wins Censorship Case


Last week, a federal court ruling struck a blow against censorship directed at marijuana policy reform advocates at Iowa State University. The case, brought by two students with the university’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), was heralded as a major victory by the plaintiffs.

…the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a permanent injunction barring Iowa State University (ISU) administrators from using a trademark policy to prevent the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU) from printing t-shirts depicting a marijuana leaf. Students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, both former presidents of the group, sued ISU in July 2014 as part of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

Because ISU had rejected the student group’s t-shirts “due to the messages they expressed” in an effort to “maintain favor with Iowa political figures,” the court found that ISU engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.

The court also denied the defense of qualified immunity to the named defendants, including ISU President Steven Leath and Senior Vice President Warren Madden, meaning that they may be held personally liable for violating Furleigh and Gerlich’s First Amendment rights. In so ruling, the court found that “a reasonable person would understand that Defendants’ actions treaded on Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights of political expression and association.”

Senior District Judge James Gritzner, who issued the ruling, observed that “[t]he development of First Amendment doctrine in the university context has repeatedly affirmed that student groups may not be denied benefits on the basis of their espoused views.” After reviewing the record, the court concluded that “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.”

In their original complaint, the students detailed how the university censored the group’s t-shirts based on their marijuana-related messaging and imagery, removed NORML ISU’s advisor, and implemented new guidelines for using ISU’s trademark in order to restrict NORML ISU’s speech. And in a January 2015 ruling, the court rejected every argument ISU made in its initial attempt to have the case dismissed.

You can view the full press release here.


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