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 In this particular case, the student group got approval from ISU to use school trademarks, only to have that approval rescinded once a bunch of politicians got involved.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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  • icon
    Miles Barnett (profile), 16 Feb 2017 @ 6:57pm

    Protect the Constitution

    With all the yapping from these clowns about protecting the constitution, you would think they would take some time to actually read it and learn what it means.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 16 Feb 2017 @ 8:38pm

      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.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 12:32am

      Re: Protect the Constitution

      Politicians are more interested in the divine right to rule than the constitution, and do not like the way it limits their ability to tell other people how to live their lives.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 6:15am

      Re: Protect the Constitution

      ha ha...

      getting people to read it is a feat on its own... getting them to learn what is means? I call bullshit! not happening.

      If you cannot spoon feed it to them from one of their "political fonts" good luck!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 7:15am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    annonymouse, 16 Feb 2017 @ 9:21pm

    Again I have to wonder why the court again falls short on slapping down the instigators of such actions in the first place?

    Following orders is not an excuse but you still go after the ones giving them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Feb 2017 @ 9:39pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 17 Feb 2017 @ 1:07am

      Re:

      Give Trump the benefit of the doubt. His plan may be to keep diluting the truth until it achieves homeopathic-like potency.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Wendy Cockcroft, 17 Feb 2017 @ 6:02am

        Re: Re:

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

        Oh, yes: https://www.mpp.org/2016-presidential-candidates/#Donald

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Roger Strong (profile), 17 Feb 2017 @ 6:17am

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Wendy Cockcroft, 17 Feb 2017 @ 7:14am

            Re: Re: Re: 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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 2:08am

    Higher Education

    "...it certainly isn't in the interest of, ahem, higher education."

    Whatever gave you the idea that politicians should want to promote education of any sort? Much easier to control the ignorant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 6:20am

    Iowa State University doesn't care about the Constitution much. The school cancelled Milo Y's appearance there after he had been invited to speak.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 17 Feb 2017 @ 7:18am

      Re:

      Iowa State University doesn't care about the Constitution much. The school cancelled Milo Y's appearance there after he had been invited to speak.

      The 1st amendment doesn't say anyone has to give anyone else a forum to speak.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 7:25am

        Re: Re:

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

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 17 Feb 2017 @ 8:19am

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Michael, 17 Feb 2017 @ 8:42am

            Re: Re: Re: 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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 6:49am

    ...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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Josh M., 24 Feb 2017 @ 12:46pm

      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?

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

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 7:23am

    How the heck does this square with Walker vs. Texas where personalized license plates were ruled as government speech? The pushback from the government officials should have overridden the university and the use of the government owned logo.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 9:40am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    slowgreenturtle (profile), 17 Feb 2017 @ 10:30am

    Privatization

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 1:06pm

      Re: Privatization

      I disagree on both points. We don't need the government to get out of education.

      And if this had been at a private university, this would still be news. Perhaps the outcome of the court case would have been different, but it would still be newsworthy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 17 Feb 2017 @ 3:48pm

      Re: Privatization

      So you want to get the government out of education so that schools will be free to suppress political speech they disagree with. Wow, I don't think I've ever heard that position before.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        The Wanderer (profile), 19 Feb 2017 @ 4:12am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2017 @ 10:47am

    Educational organizations have no interest in having the government get out of education. If that actually happened, half of the colleges (maybe more) would shut down within a year.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    stosh, 17 Feb 2017 @ 11:01am

    But, but, free speech is only supposed to be speech I like...equally applicable to all sides of any dispute.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DB (profile), 17 Feb 2017 @ 11:38am

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      The Wanderer (profile), 19 Feb 2017 @ 4:27am

      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?)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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