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Eighth Circuit to hear arguments Wednesday on ISU trademark use by advocates of legalizing marijuana

by Rox Laird | December 12, 2016

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit will hear oral arguments Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn., in a trademark dispute between Iowa State University and the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

ISU argues that the University’s trademarks constitute government speech and that it controls the use of its trademarks – such as the ISU logo and Cy the Cyclone – to promote the image of the University. ISU wants to preserve the right to control its own speech by preventing its trademarks from being associated with symbols of illicit drug use.

NORML argues that it does not advocate the illegal use of marijuana. Rather, it says it is exercising its First Amendment right to advocate for a change in the laws that make the use of marijuana illegal. NORML argues that, out of 800 student groups on campus, it was singled out by the University for discrimination based on the content of its political advocacy message, which is a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights.

The University appealed a January ruling by U.S. District Judge James Gritzner, which held that the University violated NORML’s First Amendment rights when it prevented the student group from using an image of a cannabis leaf along with the NORML logo on T-shirts bearing Iowa State University trademarks.

Judge Gritzner noted the record showed that ISU has allowed its trademarks to be used by student groups representing a broad range of viewpoints including, among others, pro-life and pro-choice groups, a sexual bondage club and a student organization that supports the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Rejecting NORML’s use of the ISU trademark “amounts to discrimination on the basis of plaintiffs’ viewpoint,” Gritzner ruled.

The case has attracted two amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in support of the NORML student group’s freedom of speech under the First Amendment. One brief is from the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Law Center; and one was filed on behalf of Students for Life of America, Young Americans for Freedom, Young Americans for Liberty, Ratio Christi, and the Christian Legal Society.

Audio of Wednesday’s oral argument will be available on the website of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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