Iowa State’s Ban on Pro-Cannabis Shirt is a “Cardinal” Sin

Iowa taxpayers will have to pay the price for Iowa State University’s violation of students’ basic constitutional right to free speech. The Iowa State Board voted to pay $150,000 to the two former presidents of the university’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich. The board will also pay $193,000 to two law firms that represented the group while defending against appeals from the university. Additional legal fees, in an amount to be decided by a judge, will also be paid by the board. Since state law indemnifies state employees sued in federal court for action pertaining to their jobs, Iowa taxpayers are responsible for covering the costs of the lawsuit.

The case originally began in 2012 after The Des Moines Register published an article with a picture of the group’s shirt, which features the phrase “Freedom is NORML at ISU” with a small cannabis leaf on the back and the school’s mascot, a cardinal, on the front. Former ISU President Steven Leath saw the picture as a possible public relations problem after then-Gov. Terry Brown and other conservative lawmakers asked if the university was supporting the group’s pro-cannabis stance. Furleigh and Gerlich sued the university in 2014, and in 2016, judges ruled that the university did in fact violate the students’ rights by prohibiting the printing of the shirts.

The school’s trademark office initially approved the shirt design, but mounting pressure caused the school to revoke the right for the group to produce the shirts and rewrite the trademark guidelines, banning the use of the school’s logo on shirts that feature “drug and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful.” As one of the 800 recognized student groups, NORML ISU has the right to use the school’s trademarks.

ISU filed two unsuccessful attempts at appealing the ruling, leading to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stating that school officials violated the students’ constitutional right to free speech. The ruling doubles as a win not only for pro-cannabis advocates, but for free speech as well. The plaintiffs’ lead attorney Robert Corn-Revere called the ruling “an unambiguous win for our clients and for the First Amendment and for an understanding that violating people’s rights isn’t free.”

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