A trip to any college or university bookstore will uncover aisles of merchandise, from keychains to T-shirts, branded with the institution’s name and logos. As evidenced by the variety of goods, the branding of a higher education institution’s name or logo may be a significant source of revenue. Colleges and universities that license their name and logos should have written guidelines and a consistent process for trademark licensing. This is the key takeaway from a recent case involving Iowa State University (ISU), which faced legal scrutiny when it prohibited a group of students from the ISU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), from using ISU trademarks on club T-shirts. The group initially received permission from ISU’s licensing office to print shirts which featured the ISU logo and mascot on the front and a cannabis leaf on the back. After facing backlash from the Iowa governor’s office, and a staff person in the Iowa House Republican Caucasus, ISU withdrew its permission. The disappointed students brought suit in the Southern District of Iowa, with help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil liberties organization that focuses on protecting individual rights in higher education. The district court found for the students. In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling. It found that ISU’s refusal was impermissible viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment because ISU followed an inconsistent trademark approval process with respect to the proposed use by NORML.
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