Cummings: NORML ISU and CY dispute


Blake Lanser/Iowa State Daily

Mike Bankers, a junior in industrial engineering and management, talks with students about NORML, the Iowa State chapter.  NORML, or National Organizations for Reform of Marijuana Laws, advocates for changes concerning marijuana laws.

Kelsey Cummings

Recently, the Iowa State Daily published an article discussing Iowa State’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ (NORML ISU) decision to take on Iowa State’s Trademark Licensing Office for the rejection of their T-shirt logo designs. However, it is unlikely that NORML ISU’s plans to appeal this rejection will achieve their desired outcome. Their design simply doesn’t follow the rules.

In January 2013, the trademark office updated its guidelines to now state that designs with “dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors” and “drugs and drug paraphernalia that are illegal or unhealthful” that also include logos or symbols associated with the university would not be approved. In June 2013, NORML ISU tried getting approval for a design that read “NORML ISU Supports Marijuana Legalization” with a picture of a cannabis leaf.

Because advocating for the legalization of marijuana is the main focus of NORML ISU, it is natural that the club would want to display its cause on club affiliated t-shirts. However, even though the “ISU” is part of their official title, NORML ISU doesn’t automatically have the right to use it in designs.

There is a fine line between being a club located at a university and a club whose cause is endorsed by that university. Having “ISU” in the title of an organization merely states that organization is located at Iowa State. But because Iowa State has stated they do not endorse any act, not just the act of marijuana legalization, and because Iowa State’s Trademark Licensing Office controls the usage of university terms, such as “ISU,” “Iowa State,” “Iowa State University” and “Cyclones,” it cannot necessarily be said that Iowa State is rejecting the designs purely for this specific issue.

Granted, marijuana legalization is a controversial topic, and it might be true that the university does not want to be associated with supporting one side or the other. However, NORML ISU’s claim that this rejection infringes on its First Amendment rights doesn’t sufficiently hold up in an argument.

What is not being considered here is that the First Amendment does not provide equal levels of protection to every instance of expression. Since the shirts could potentially be approved for sale, the design might fall under the category of commercial speech, which is not fully protected under the First Amendment. If the speech is false or misleading, as it is in this case, it is may not be granted any protection at all. Even if the shirts wouldn’t be considered commercial speech, there is no guarantee that NORML ISU’s supposed right to use the ISU mark is fully protected under the First Amendment.

Furthermore, in no way is Iowa State trying to hinder or stop the actions being taken by NORML ISU to express its views. The club will be able to carry on with activities and express their opinions as usual. But producing a T-shirt design which could potentially imply that Iowa State endorses a topic it does not would be false. Due to the nature of copyright laws, Iowa State has the legal right to refuse the use of its logos and marks to any organization it deems might be using the logo or mark incorrectly or falsely. In this case, the mark is being used in a manner which suggests false endorsement.

Universities are, in some ways, like regular businesses. They rely on the support of the community for funding and upholding a positive reputation. Because of this, universities must remain fairly neutral on certain issues, especially highly controversial political issues, or else risk a lowered reputation in the eyes of its community members. But it would be wrong to assume that Iowa State does not support its students simply because of a matter of reputation. Approving students to form these controversial clubs at all certainly proves Iowa State’s willingness to support diversity.

So although it is in NORML ISU’s Constitutional rights to be able to disagree with and try to work to change the trademark office’s decision, their claims against Iowa State does not take into account the university’s own rights to reject them. As long as Iowa State remains vigilant about enforcing their trademark guidelines for every student organization, I see no reason why they should change their decision.