Iowa State's Attempt To Violate Its Students First Amendment Rights To Cost State Nearly $400k In Damages

from the money-well-spent dept

In the early part of 2017, we brought you the story of an Iowa State University student group pushing for marijuana reform in the state that was being targeted by the university for trademark infringement after the group used some school iconography on t-shirts it developed for its cause. The whole episode was fairly bonkers, with the school initially approving the students’ use of the imagery, only to rescind that approval after Iowa House Republicans sent a letter to the school’s leadership questioning the decision. That sort of infringement of speech by a school and, in the background, by state legislators that really should have known better, was always destined to result in legal proceedings, given the enormous First Amendment implications. Well, as we reported, that trial ran its course, including an appeal, and was decided in the favor of the student group.

While all of that was settled last year, what we didn’t know until recently is just how much taxpayer money would be paid out as a result of a public university and state legislators seeking, quite plainly, to infringe on perhaps the most sacred right this country enjoys. Now we have an answer to that question: at least $350,000.

The State Appeal Board voted to pay $150,000 in damages to two leaders of the university chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws whose free-speech rights were violated by campus administrators. The board also approved a $193,000 payment to two law firms that represented the group for their efforts to defend against the university’s unsuccessful appeals, and additional legal fees for their trial work in an amount to be decided by a judge.

The costs stem from what federal judges found were the university’s politically motivated, illegal attempts to ban T-shirt designs that featured the Iowa State mascot and a small cannabis leaf — and its yearslong, unsuccessful defense of those efforts in court. The payouts will come from the state’s general budget.

I will be severely disappointed in the state of Iowa if every House member that signed that letter to the school doesn’t have campaign ads running against them highlighting the fact that this plainly unconstitutional action cost state taxpayers at least well over a quarter of a million dollars. Especially when you consider that the legal team for the student group practically begged the school to settle early on to avoid exactly these kinds of costs.

And that $350k figure is almost certainly just a starting point and not what the ultimate payout from the state will be.

“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,” said the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Robert Corn-Revere. “One reason we urge universities to settle early is to avoid these kinds of expenses.”

He said he expects to request a fee award that is “substantially more” for trial work than the $193,000 awarded for the appeals, based on the amount of time spent. The deal requires the state to increase the amount awarded by $15,000 to compensate lawyers for their time spent on the fee application. The costs do not include work by the taxpayer-funded Iowa Attorney General’s office, which represented former ISU President Steven Leath and three other administrators who were found responsible for the constitutional violations.

All of this because a school decided not to tell a bunch of meddling lawmakers to piss off and instead bowed to their unconstitutional requests. That this reliance on taxpayer money to resolve this mistake is on everyone’s record will hopefully go some way to changes in job status for many of these people.

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Comments on “Iowa State's Attempt To Violate Its Students First Amendment Rights To Cost State Nearly $400k In Damages”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Assumed power is the most abused power

That ISU and others thought that they could control what others have to say because they have the ‘power’ that they don’t actually have, but believe they have, is indicative of those in power.

Having a position of power does not give one power. That a majority of the people concur with your position might give one power, at least temporarily, until it is found out what one actually proposes to do with the power assumed. Once the ‘proletariat’ finds out what you want to do with that power, it might rescind that power, even if it takes some time.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Assumed power is the most abused power

They play their power now. At some point they will find out the extent of their ‘power’. It might take some time, but violations of the Constitution, SCOTUS or not, the Legislature will eventually do the will of the people. Not next year, nor probably the year after, but eventually.

Today the political parties have some control, tomorrow the proletariat might understand what is going on. Then again it might be the year after tomorrow. It will happen, consensualy or violently. The tree of liberty will be refreshed, one way or another.

The other choice is to give in and let ‘power’ play it’s game. I don’t believe that will happen, in the long run.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But the purse strings of the legislature are true power

If the university didn’t cave to the governor (it was the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy that contacted ISU), then their funding could be jeopardized.

What they didn’t have to do is turn around and appeal. … which is why we’re getting a resolution 11 months after the initial decision. By the by, that original decision was obvious enough that the plaintiffs won on a summary judgement motion.

Anonymous Coward says:

The clients are getting $150,000 – hardly a small payout – but the lawyers are getting more than that for their work on the appeal alone. They expect the bill for the trial work to be substantially more than that, meaning the attorneys are getting probably around 3 times what their clients are getting. The attorneys are getting $15,000 – that’s 10% of what their clients got – just for their work on the fee application. That’s the equivalent of 2 guys working at $150 per hour for 50 hours.

Something has gone horribly wrong with our legal system if the cost for ONE side to bring a case to trial is more than the cost of a house.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Honestly, I’d disagree. At least from my vantage point outside the US, there does seem to be a lot of things coming from Republicans that appear to be designed to either cripple the public education system or push people toward for-profit solutions. As their orange mascot himself proclaimed, they love the poorly educated.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The public school system is one of the dreaded socialist programs that Republicans hate so much; eventually it must be destroyed. But in the meantime, as much money as possible should be extracted from the system and directed to private companies or religious schools. Because there is nothing like (often unearned) government money to make investors sing; and nothing like religious private school to give the kiddies a proper indoctrination.

The orange mascot loves the “properly” educated: The people should get an education devoid of any progressive, liberal or “elitist” influences, because any of those might lead them to question the “proper” conservative ideology. Some might view this as “poorly educated,” but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Isma'il says:

Re: Where EXACTLY is the money coming from?

Ultimately, time and again, the taxpayers lose because the payoffs come out of the state budget. There needs to be some serious reform, in so that those who are guilty of civil rights offenses can’t hide behind their government offices and would be responsible personally for any remedial action.

John E Cressman (profile) says:


That’s completely bogus. How does the school saying “remove our logo” in ANY way impend on anyone’s freedom of speech?! ZERO. ZIP. NIL. NADA. The school had NOTHING to do with the students wanting reform AND by including the logo, “an idiot in a hurry” might assume the SCHOOL is siding with the reform – which was not the case.

In which case, the students were actually harming the reputation of the school by using the trademark, which IS protected by law.

Otherwise, I could use any logo on any product to pretend that company support my position or my product. But I can’t do that.


Richard M says:


The Govt is not allowed to pick and choose. If the college had changed the rules to not allow ANY student group to use the school logo the results would have been more than likely quite different.

However the school singled out one group who’s political stand it did not like (or the politicians told them not to like in this case) and said that one group was not allowed to do what other student groups were allowed to do.

You see this quite often with k-12 schools and religious groups. Once a school allows one religious group use school property they have to allow all of them.

Ninja (profile) says:


Of course, you know much more than an entire appeals board, right? Oh, and it’s better if you don’t mention the government is behind it because when the government tries to stifle speech then it is a no no. And we have plenty of examples where it meddled in stuff like logos and car id tags and it was considered speech by MULTIPLE courts.

bows to Mr Cressman, the smartass

Anonymous Coward says:


It’s called ‘parody’ and ‘satire’. It allows you to do exactly what you define and is one of the more important and legally recognized protections afforded by the First Amendment. So much recognized that the courts ruled in favor of the student group, twice.

I suggest you do some research on the First Amendment as it relates to parody, satire, and fair use.

Thad (user link) says:


That’s completely bogus. How does the school saying "remove our logo" in ANY way impend on anyone’s freedom of speech?! ZERO. ZIP. NIL. NADA. The school had NOTHING to do with the students wanting reform AND by including the logo, "an idiot in a hurry" might assume the SCHOOL is siding with the reform – which was not the case.

You’re not only misquoting the "moron in a hurry" standard, you’re using it to mean the opposite of what it actually means. "Only a moron in a hurry would be misled" means that there’s not any trademark infringement.

It’s also not applicable here. The "moron in a hurry" quote comes from a ruling that Daily Star is not so similar to Morning Star as to create confusion. If you want a case that’s analogous to that, there are plenty of articles on Techdirt about litigious breweries.

This isn’t a case where somebody created a completely new trademark and a university sued over it even though it was dissimilar. This is a case of a student organization using the university’s actual trademarks, with permission, and then the university attempting to rescind that permission under government pressure. The "moron in a hurry" standard does not apply, at all.

In which case, the students were actually harming the reputation of the school by using the trademark, which IS protected by law.

Not if you’re a public university, initially approve the use, and then try to rescind it due to political pressure from government officials who wish to impose a content-based restriction on speech.

Here’s from the previous article linked in the first sentence:

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.

If the school had rejected the use of its logos in the first place, and had a consistent position on doing so that applied to all student organizations, then it would be in the clear. That’s not what happened. The school’s decision to initially approve the use, and attempt to revoke permission only after it received pressure from the legislature, makes it clear that this was a government-imposed, content-based restriction of speech.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

(ITYM Todd Akin? King defended him, and Phil Gingrey later backed up Akin’s assertion, but it was Akin who made the “legitimate rape” comment.)

To be fair, that comment seems to have been almost universally misinterpreted; most people seem to read it as an attempt to assert that rape can sometimes be legitimate, i.e., OK / acceptable / what-have-you.

Per Wikipedia, the actual quote is “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” – where “that whole thing” is, apparently, pregnancy.

As I understand matters, this is not an attempt to claim that “some rapes are OK”; it was “sexual interactions which legitimately qualify as rape rarely if ever result in pregnancy”, with the distinction being versus e.g. “consensual sexual interactions which the woman later falsely claims were rape”. Which is plainly idiotic, to a level I’d hope we wouldn’t want in our elected representatives – but at least doesn’t argue that rape is ever OK.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

And that’s what we were flippin’ out about: “Wimmin be ho’s.”

No, we’re not. We’re your mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters, etc. Akin seems to think that only “good women” get raped but that’s okay, their bodies magically shut unwanted pregnancies down. As for the rest, it’s just buyer’s regret, which is why inconvenient pregnancies take hold.

This is the logical endgame of the Prosperity Gospel, in which good people are rewarded materially in this life (and therefore bad people suffer because they deserve to).

aerinai (profile) says:

University's position: rock... meet hard place

So, I totally understand the idea of not violating rights. It’s wrong m’kay.

And if you do violate rights. settle early.


You have to remember a lot of universities are political animals that have to cowtow to the morons holding the purse strings. In Iowa… it is DEFINITELY the republican lawmakers.

A perverse incentive exists when you have a gaggle of fools tell you they want you to do something and they hold the purse strings… Say no… well, that extra funding you were expecting magically dried up.

So while I disagree with the university’s decision; one has to wonder if they made the right choice. I mean… the state is paying for their screw-up, not the university. And they didn’t make any enemies with the lawmakers so their funding stream is intact…

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