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Court Rules Iowa State U. Officials Violated Student Activists’ Speech Rights

Iowa State University administrators trampled on the free-speech rights of student activists by barring their use of the university’s trademarks to promote changes in marijuana laws, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit ruled on Tuesday.

A three-judge panel of the court held that Iowa State administrators violated the First Amendment by considering the views espoused by the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in denying it permission to use the university’s trademarked name and logos. The court cited testimony that the administrators’ decision to deny the group permission to use the trademarks was a response to a public-relations crisis and lawmaker complaints after the group’s president told a local newspaper that the university’s previous permission to use the trademarks amounted to support for the cause.

In broadly allowing student groups to use its trademarks — and not suggesting that its doing so in any way endorsed their views — Iowa State created a “limited public forum,” allowing student groups to use the trademarks for any speech that is constitutionally protected, the ruling said. The court declared the speech at issue as protected under the First Amendment because the student group advocated revising, not violating, laws against marijuana. The decision heavily cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1995 ruling, in the case Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, which struck down that public institution’s denial of funds to a religious student group.

The panel of Eighth Circuit judges divided, 2 to 1, on the question of whether the First Amendment questions raised in the case were undecided enough for the administrators named in the lawsuit to deserve qualified immunity from having to pay compensatory damages and lawyers’ fees. The dissenter, Judge James B. Loken, argued that a lower federal court had erred in denying the administrators such immunity in light of uncertainty surrounding the questions of whether the university’s trademark-licensing program amounted to a limited public forum or whether a university could restrict speech related to unsafe or illegal activities.

The Eighth Circuit panel unanimously ruled against Iowa State in the same case in February. The latest decision comes in response to a petition by Iowa State for a rehearing.

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