Taxpayers Foot Bill for Iowa State’s Failed Marijuana Lawsuit Against Students

When a group of students at Iowa State University (ISU) decided to dedicate their time — when not in class, of course — to fighting for marijuana legislation reform, they probably didn’t expect to generate national news with their T-shirts.

But when Iowa State violated the U.S. Constitution by banning the shirts, which featured the university’s mascot and a small marijuana leaf, they ended up costing taxpayers statewide some serious legal costs.

According to The Associated Press, the state will have to fork over $150,000 in damages to two members who serve leadership roles in the ISU chapter of NORML. Former students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich will each receive half of the settlement. A state board determined the school violated the group’s right to free speech by prohibiting the shirts.

Additionally, taxpayers will foot the bill for $386,000 in legal fees to two law firms that represented the NORML chapter in the case and its subsequent appeals.

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

Going forward, an injunction from the court will prevent the university from bringing future trademark lawsuits against the group, even if they continue to produce school-related apparel that includes marijuana imaging.

Originally approved by ISU, the student group only faced backlash from their school once the Des Moines Register quoted and photographed a group of students wearing the t-shirt while conducting an interview for a November 2012 piece about legalization efforts in the state.

In June, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the university’s actions were “viewpoint discrimination,” meaning the student group faced “unique scrutiny” just because the school disagreed with its political viewpoint.

NORML recognizes roughly 800 student chapters and each one has the right to use their school’s trademarks.


The shirt in question features ISU’s recognizable Cardinal mascot alongside the NORML logo, with the quote “Freedom is NORML at ISU” emblazoned on the back with a cannabis leaf.

Once high-powered politicians in the state, including then-Governor Terry Branstad, questioned the school’s involvement or possible support of the apparel, the school took action. They blocked the production of additional shirts, citing a newly edited trademark bylaw that stated clothing bearing the school’s name or logo could not also show or promote “drugs and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful.”

Cover image courtesy of Allie Beckett

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