Iowa just wasted over $350,000 of taxpayer money on a weed shirt. That’s how much the state will have to pay after losing a long court battle against the Iowa State University chapter of NORML (National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws).
The case goes back to 2012, when students Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleighplanned to print shirts depicting the NORML ISU logo with school mascot Cy the Cardinal on the front, with a marijuana leaf and the group’s slogan — “Freedom is Norml at ISU” — on the back.
The school initially okayed the design, but soon faced backlash from local lawmakers that didn’t approve of ISU supporting a cannabis legalization group. So when the NORML chapter tried to reorder shirts, ISU blocked their request, claiming the apparel violated their trademark policy, which the school had recently revised to ban anyone from using its brand in conjunction with “drugs and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful.”
Gerlich and Furleigh sued ISU in 2014 for violating their freedom of speech. They won that case in 2016 as well as the school’s appeal in 2017. In both trials, the courts agreed that ISU’s actions were politically motivated and discriminatory. “The defendants’ rejection of NORML ISU’s designs discriminated against that group on the basis of the group’s viewpoint,” the justices wrote in their decision.
The win meant that the state of Iowa would have to foot the bill for the legal costs, which were partially disclosed this week. The state must pay $150,000 to Gerlich and Furleigh for damages and $193,000 to the legal firms that represented them. On top of that, they’ll have to cover the legal costs accrued by ISU in the unsuccessful lawsuits, which have yet to be determined.
The courts also barred the university from subjecting groups to “unique scrutiny” when reviewing their apparel, so the losing side will see lots of ISU NORML shirts on campus in the future. And other cannabis-themed tees will probably start sprouting up across the country since the decision in Iowa will have ripple effects from coast to coast. And if campuses don’t want to repeat ISU’s expensive mistake, they should take some free legal advice from the student’s lead attorney.
“[V]iolating people’s rights isn’t free,” lawyer Robert Corn-Revere said in response to the court’s decision. “One reason we urge universities to settle early is to avoid these kinds of expenses.”
Otherwise they could wind up blowing close to half a million dollars on a weed shirt.