Iowa State executives appeal free speech-marijuana logo case

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Posted: Feb 18, 2016 5:25 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa State University administrators are appealing a federal judge's ruling that they violated the free speech rights of student members of a pro-marijuana group by barring them from using the university logos on T-shirts.

Attorneys for ISU President Steven Leath, Senior Vice President Warren Madden and two other administrators notified the court Wednesday of their appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

U.S. District Judge James Gritzner had issued an order on Jan. 22 granting members of the ISU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws a permanent injunction blocking university administrators from using a trademark policy to prevent the group from printing shirts depicting the school mascot and a marijuana leaf.

Gritzner determined that the university administrators put unique burdens on the students and the group's political expression, violating their First Amendment free speech rights.

Students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, former presidents of the group, had sued in July 2014. They said ISU withdrew its approval of one of the group's marijuana-themed T-shirts featuring the school's Cy mascot and a marijuana leaf under pressure from donors and a group of conservative Republican lawmakers.

The lawsuit says ISU administrators removed the university's adviser to NORML and rewrote its trademark guidelines to bar university logos in products that promote illegal drugs.

Furleigh and Gerlich's attorney, Robert Corn-Revere, said the students proved to the court that ISU bowed to political pressure when it imposed special restrictions on NORML. The administrators' actions violated the most basic First Amendment requirement that the government cannot discriminate against a student group or its members because it disagrees with their viewpoint, he said.

"ISU's appeal to the Court of Appeals did not come as a surprise," Corn-Revere said Thursday. "We look forward to the appellate court confirming Judge Gritzner's well-reasoned holding that any reasonable public official would have understood that ISU's politically motivated actions toward NORML ISU violated the First Amendment."

A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's office, which represents the university administrators, did not immediately respond to a message.

University spokesman John McCarroll said the university's trademarks represent its identity and reputation.

"It is our view that the U.S. Constitution and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision give us discretion in permitting trademark use," he said. "We are appealing because we regard this as an important issue of law."

The students plan to move to another phase of the case in which they seek monetary damages against university administrators and ask the court to award them attorney fees and court costs. Those documents will be filed if Gritzner's rulings stand after the appeals court review.

In his January order, Gritzner denied the defense of qualified immunity for Leath, Madden, Vice President for Student Affairs Thomas Hill and Director of Trademark Licensing Leesha Zimmerman. That means they could be held personally liable for violating the students' rights.

Public officials are entitled to immunity from claims as individuals if their actions did not violate clearly established law of which a reasonable person in the officials' position would be aware.

But Gritzner concluded that "a reasonable person in defendants' position would understand that their conduct, aimed at silencing political controversy associated with the group's political views, was unlawful under the circumstances."

He also said it is clear the administrators were aware that their conduct could infringe the students' First Amendment rights.

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