It’s not all gloom and doom for free speech on college campuses through the United States. For instance, a federal judge just ordered administrators at Iowa State to stop censoring a pro-marijuana legalization group’s t-shirts in a free speech win. Jacob Sullum of Reason writes:
In October 2012, the ISU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) submitted a new T-shirt design to the school’s Trademark Office. The front featured Cy the Cardinal, the university’s mascot, leaning on the initials ISU with his head taking the place of the O in NORML. The back of the shirt said “Freedom is NORML at ISU” with a cannabis leaf above NORML.
Although the Trademark Office approved the design, that decision became politically problematic a month later afterThe Des Moines Register ran a story about marijuana legalization that included a photo of NORML ISU members wearing the T-shirts. Responding to complaints from state legislators and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s chief drug policy adviser, ISU officials effectively rescinded approval of the T-shirt by refusing to let the student group order more, changed the rules for using ISU trademarks, and subjected NORML ISU T-shirt designs to special scrutiny, rejecting any that featured Cy or cannabis leaves.
“There are some issues that are clearly going to cause controversy and it’s better to manage them on the front end,” Leath explained in an internal email message. “My experience would say in a state as conservative as Iowa on many issues, that [Des Moines Register article] was going to be a problem.” Leath said ISU administrators “should be very sensitive to how people perceive the things we do in and around campus.” He added that “it would be unwise, it would be just foolish not to have a close working relationship with the top government official when you’re a government entity.”
Those incriminating words came to light as a result of a 2014 lawsuit that NORML ISU members Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh filed against Leath and three other administrators with help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In response, U.S. District Judge James Gritzner had little trouble concluding that Leath’s new T-shirt policy, which was clearly aimed specifically at advocates of marijuana legalization, amounted to politically motivated viewpoint discrimination, an obvious First Amendment no-no. “Plaintiffs’ political message, and a political reaction, was a driving factor behind Defendants’ actions,” Gritzner wrote. “Defendants took action specifically directed at NORML ISU based on their views and the political reaction to those views so that Defendants could maintain favor with Iowa political figures. As such, the Court must conclude Defendants’ conduct amounts to discrimination on the basis of Plaintiffs’ viewpoint.””]
This university found out the hard way that its job, to provide a learning environment for students to broaden their horizons, did not include a free pass to censor politically sensitive topics the frustrate agents of the state. Be sure to read the rest of the article to learn more about the case. And if you or someone you know is being censored by their university administration be sure to reach out to FIRE.