Pro-Marijuana Student Organization Wins Court Case Over Using School Logos

from the gone-to-pot dept

We’ve seen stories in the past in which higher educational institutions attempt to slap down students’ use of school iconography when it comes to advocating for marijuana legalization. Trademark law is the preferred bludgeoning tool in many of these cases, regardless of whether or not the uses in question actually pass the muster on the tests for Fair Use. Still, at least in most of these cases the schools are at least quick to act and staunch in their attempts to silence a completely valid political position by the student body.

That’s not so in the recent dust up between a pro-marijuana student group and Iowa State University. In this particular case, the student group got approval from ISU to use school trademarks, only to have that approval rescinded once a bunch of politicians got involved. The organization created by students is called the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

When NORML ISU first formed, in 2012, group members submitted a request for approval of a t-shirt saying “Freedom is NORML at ISU” with a small cannabis leaf above the slogan, and the Trademark Office initially approved it.

Soon thereafter, the Des Moines Register ran an article about marijuana legalization in which ISU student Josh Montgomery, then president of the school’s NORML chapter, mentioned that ISU was supportive of his organization’s efforts and had even approved the aforementioned t-shirt. On the day the Register article ran, the Iowa House Republicans Caucus sent a formal letter to ISU leadership asking whether they had actually approved the NORML t-shirt. By the end of the day, ISU President Steven Leath and his top staff were emailing one another to discuss whether the school could revoke approval of the NORML design. The next day, a representative from the Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy personally contacted ISU administrators to voice concern with their t-shirt approval policies.

And almost immediately after that, ISU suddenly began putting holds on the approval for NORML’s applications for using similar designs for t-shirts. Then came the rejections of all subsequent applications that included an image of a cannabis leaf, as well as an edict demanding that all of the group’s future designs be submitted to the school for approval. NORML ISU then filed a lawsuit against the school, arguing that this arbitrary flip-flopping on the group’s use of school trademarks was a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights, as the decisions were being made clearly based on protected political speech. The District Court agreed, after which the school appealed.

And now the appeals court has affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

On Monday, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s ruling, concluding that students’ “attempts to obtain approval to use ISU’s trademarks on NORML ISU’s merchandise amounted to constitutionally protected speech.” And state schools cannot discriminate against constitutionally protected speech on the basis of its viewpoint without proving that this restriction serves a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.

Specifically, the court decided that the school’s decisions to refuse NORML’s applications and designs were based on the political push-back it received from state politicians, making it a clear violation of free speech rights. Which is a pretty stunning thing for a public university to have done, if you think about it. State reps from one party from one state got a public university made up of students from all over the country to attempt to silence a perfectly valid political position by a student organization. Whatever such action is, it certainly isn’t in the interest of, ahem, higher education.

Good on the court for getting this right.

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Comments on “Pro-Marijuana Student Organization Wins Court Case Over Using School Logos”

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orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Protect the Constitution

I am not sure that school administrations or boards of trustees are much interested in the Constitution for other people. Especially the way universities have gone the last 20 years.

Certainly most of those politicians aren’t interested in it at all. (And they should not be butting into uni business, either.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Protect the Constitution

getting people to read [the constitution] is a feat on its own… getting them to learn what is means?

Since you need to go through 200 years of court precedents to do that, that’s not too surprising.

Consider, for example, Wickard v Filburn, giving the federal government the right to micromanage on the basis of regulating interstate trade – regardless of whether the activity going on would actually involve interstate trade.

Or Brown v Board of Education, striking down "separate but equal" and rolling back Plessy v Ferguson.

A LOT of how the constitution is interpreted is between the lines you see on paper.

Anonymous Coward says:

State reps from one party from one state got a public university made up of students from all over the country to attempt to silence a perfectly valid political position by a student organization.

President Donald John Trump has no issue with slapping news reporters for "fake news" when actually verbatim quoting him. Then President Donald John Trump starts talking about subjecting journalists to defamation suits and criminal prosecution for stating facts and opinion.

Something is very screwed up around here. I think we need to stop ‘draining the swamp’ while refilling it up with nuckin’ futz. One can hardly blame his lower echelon party members for toeing the party line on the bat shit crazy train.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Didn’t Our Prez, who art in the White House, say something in support of legalizing weed?

Oh, yes:

Although he wobbles a bit (to play to the gallery) he seems basically in favour of it.

The authoritarians are the problem here and they are found in both parties (although they tend to get all authoritarian for different reasons). Let’s not play the partisan pattycake game here. Trump is not responsible for this, the authoritarians are.

Let’s be reasonable in our criticism, people, and bash people for things they actually have done.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The authoritarians are the problem here and they are found in both parties (although they tend to get all authoritarian for different reasons).

Parties aside, individual politicians are authoritarian on some issues and libertarian on others. Trump may not be authoritarian on weed, but he’s extremely authoritarian on other issues.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Yep. But that’s the same with all of them in different ways. This is what I’m trying to draw people’s attention to: the problem is not with {individual} or {group}, it’s with their authoritarianism.

That’s why partisan pattycake is such a waste of time; it doesn’t solve the problem because partisans are barking up the wrong tree. If we target authoritarianism itself and call that out we’re more likely to be able to push back effectively. As it is, we get bogged down in Red V Blue and nothing changes.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No, but it does give the students at Iowa State the right to invite and listen to people they decide on.

It doesn’t give them the right to make use of university facilities in whatever way they please. If they want to organize an off campus event, of course they have every right to do that. I have not heard of any court cases where students were ruled to have the right to force a school administration to host an event.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You miss the point and it is subtle, but very important.

The university already gave them the “right to make use of university facilities” as the students wanted. This was then rescinded based on political pressure.

The motivation for the universities actions was created by politicians trying to stifle speech.

Anonymous Coward says:

…mentioned that ISU was supportive of his organization’s efforts and had even approved the aforementioned t-shirt.

While I completely agree on the first amendment side of this story, I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to the school. Attempting to parlay the school’s recognition of his club into official support of the club’s political position is rather disgusting.

When talking about free speech in Universities, it’s always important to remember that the school allowing your political organization to be affiliated with them does not mean the school supports your effort. They are providing you with a forum because they believe that your speech is valuable, not because they agree with it.

Josh M. says:

Re: Re:

I actually thought it was pretty clever. We’re trying to legalize weed and keep people out of jail.

The statement “…ISU was supportive of his organization’s efforts…” leaves much open to interpretation. The statement “…had even approved the aforementioned t-shirt…” is merely a fact.

You said it was DISGUSTING that I suggested they were supportive of the organization’s efforts. The school is supportive of all student-organization efforts, or they wouldn’t empower students to create stu-orgs in the first place. It sounds like you have a personal, vested interest in the outcome.

Calling the statement “disgusting” is pretty extreme, and it misconstrues the meaning of the quoted statement.

Do you have a personal, vested interest in the outcome?

Founder of NORML ISU and the Guy Who Made the Statement that Was Quoted in the Article Which Spawned the Lawsuit

Anonymous Coward says:

No, actually it’s not at all “stunning” nor surprising for a public university to do something like this. Public schools are dependent on public funding whether in the form of budgetary allowances for operating or grants for research. When politicians control the purse strings politics controls the agenda no matter how much we would wish otherwise. When it’s about politics it’s often about shouting louder than (or down) your political opponents. Freedom of Speech is just a quaint ideal to give lip service to if you’re the one being shouted down, once you’re the one in the ascendancy it’s a liability to be circumvented to silence your opponent. The party origin is irrelevant, members of both parties do this against ideas they oppose.

This is a prime example of this process, and mindset, in action and why we do have a Bill of Rights codified in writing.

slowgreenturtle (profile) says:


This is yet another reason why the government needs to get of education. This would be non-news if it was a private organization which decided to revoke it’s approval for a program or group. Since this is a government school everyone gets up in arms when the politicians (aka the government) gets involved with running its schools.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Privatization

I suspect his(?) position is that if it had been a private university rather than a (public-funds-dependent) public one, it wouldn’t have been in a position for the withholding-of-funds pressure to be put on it in the first place, much less have felt the need to succumb to that pressure.

I’m not sure how independent-of-government-funding many private universities really are, but the idea doesn’t seem as inherently backwards as you seem to have read it as being.

DB (profile) says:

Why were government employees lobbying?

Why was a representative from Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy surreptitiously undermining a legal awareness group?

It’s right there in their name.

National Organization for the Reform of X Laws

As long as they are doing what the name suggests, promoting the reform of specific laws, that’s clearly political speech. It’s exactly the kind of speech that government employees shouldn’t be interfering with in their official capacity.

Why aren’t those employees being investigated?

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Why were government employees lobbying?

I suspect their idea was about the free-association rights of the representatives. (Bear with me here.)

The state university is a facet of the state government, particularly in light of being publicly funded.

Using a logo of an entity creates an association between oneself and that entity.

The government, just as much as the rest of society, has a First Amendment right to freedom of association – the right to choose who to associate with, and who to not. (Even if that doesn’t hold for the government as a whole, it certainly holds for the representatives of that government.)

Thus, by granting the student organization permission to use this logo, the state university is creating an association between this organization and the entirety of the state government, including but not limited to the representative in question. (As well as engaging in political speech itself.)

What’s more, being publicly funded, the university must have used public funds in creating the logo and the trademark thereon, and must also use public funds in maintaining that trademark.

Thus, by using the trademark in political advocacy (even with permission), the students are effectively causing the government and its representatives to engage in political activity in support of their campaign.

And so by having that permission rescinded under threat of withholding public funds, the government is actually staying out of political speech, while at the same time protecting its representatives’ own First Amendment right to freedom of association.

(Is that logic twisty enough for you?)

Laplan (profile) says:

Well, I personally really like it when a group of people can assert their rights and I can only support them in that they won the argument. It seems to me that the legalization of marijuana will only benefit society, because we do not seek to ban alcohol and I personally grow cannabis for personal use. By the way, in one of the popular online magazines here, I found a rather useful article for cannabis growers, so I recommend reading it to everyone who is interested.

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