Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Eighth Circuit Says Restrictions on University Trademark for Student NORML Group Violate Free Speech
The Eighth Circuit ruled yesterday that Iowa State University's restrictions on NORML's use of the school's trademark violates the First Amendment. The court said that the restrictions amounted to viewpoint-based discrimination in a limited public forum and enjoined the school from applying its trademark-use policy in a viewpoint-discriminatory way.
The case arose when the ISU student NORML group sought university permission to use the school's trademark on NORML t-shirts. (The school's trademark-use policy allows any student group, including NORML, to use the trademark upon request and permission.) The shirt design featured the words "NORML ISU" on the front with the "O" represented by Cy the Cardinal, the school's mascot. The back read, "Freedom is NORML at ISU" with a small cannabis leaf above "NORML."
The school initially approved the group's use of the school's trademark for the t-shirt. But then the Des Moines Register ran a story on marijuana legalization, with a picture of the shirt and a quote from NORML ISU's president saying that ISU has supported the group. The school received blowback, including calls from the state legislature and governor's office asking whether the school really approved the use of its trademark, and university officials backtracked. Officials denied the use of the trademark for a second run of the shirt; they required NORML (and NORML alone) to get additional administrative approval for any future trademark requests; and they changed their trademark policy to prohibit the use of the trademark in "designs that suggest promotion of . . . dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors . . . [or] drugs and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful." Under the new policy, the school denied NORML's request to use the trademark for any design that included a cannabis leaf, but it approved use of the trademark for a design that simply stated the group's name (with no leaf).
Group members sued and won a permanent injunction in the district court, prohibiting the school from enforcing is trademark-use policy in a viewpoint-discriminatory way. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.
The court held that the university created a limited public forum in its trademark-use policy, and that the additional barriers to that policy that it erected for NORML constituted viewpoint-based discrimination of speech. The court also rejected the school's argument that NORML's use of the trademark constituted government speech under the three-part test for government speech in Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans.