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 In this particular case, the student group got approval from ISU to use school trademarks, only to have that approval rescinded once a bunch of politicians got involved.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.