Letter to the editor: ISU’s trademark policy

Jacob Hemmerich

On September 29, I received an email from an officer of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), a club here at Iowa State. As I’m also president of a club on campus, I wanted to get into SAE’s rationale and why I think the university has the right to what policies it changed last year.

The SAE’s email stems from certain changes to ISU’s Trademark policy in 2017. In essence, for club officers, this meant that university trademarks could not be used in the names or branding of a club. For example, the Iowa State Space Society became the Ames Space Teaching and Recognition Association, and Cyclone Space Mining became Cardinal Space Mining. For these clubs, the worst thing that happened was that they needed to update their constitutions and names in the Stuorg database, and they would need to modify any existing promotional materials they had with the old name. In my eyes, not a huge problem. I think the issue runs deeper than just the naming scheme.

Though it has been downplayed by both sides, these changes are chiefly in response to a court case Iowa State University was involved in last year with the university chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORMLISU). NORMLISU had produced t-shirts with Cy the Cardinal and “ISU”, both being marks the University has registered. Iowa State pushed back, and wound up with a lawsuit from the students and a civil liberties organization. When the case ended in 2018, the students who printed the shirts had long since graduated, and the university was slapped with a judgment for $600,000 in attorney’s fees. Fighting the lawsuit was no mistake on the University’s part. Cannabis has been illegal in Iowa since 1923, and though the debate has heated up in recent years, it makes sense that the college would be opposed to its name being presented along with illegal drugs. To meet the baseline level of recognition within the university, clubs merely have to select an adviser who can be one of more than 1,800 full time faculty members, maintain an operations manual, and follow university procedures. These rules don’t necessarily preclude the existence of a Ku Klux Klan or Nazi group on campus, as they should not. One of the tenets of higher education in America is the free sharing of ideas, no matter how offensive those ideas are. Unfortunately, this can’t be reconciled with the college’s need to quash liability when it presents itself.

Should the University not have the right to outright block organizations that promote illegal or hateful activity from using its marks, while maintaining a passive stance to those groups’ legal actions? By pairing Cy, ‘Iowa State University’, or any other ISU mark with those of organizations that don’t match the university’s stated goals, it would appear to the layman that the university supports those groups. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, that’s one of the main reasons to register a trademark at all. In order to protect itself, the students and its stated mission, Iowa State’s restrictions on its trademarks were and are the right thing to do.