Missouri: University Ignores Warnings, Censors Marijuana T-Shirts
Despite repeated warnings that it is violating the First Amendment rights of its students, the University of Missouri (Mizzou) is continuing to refuse to allow a recognized student group to create t-shirts featuring a cannabis leaf and the university’s name.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has twice warned Mizzou that its treatment of the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (MU NORML) violates the First Amendment.
“Mizzou flatly told MU NORML that it was censoring the group’s T-shirt artwork because of the message it could appear to express,” said FIRE Vice President of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley. "That’s viewpoint discrimination, and it’s prohibited by the First Amendment."
In the fall 2015 semester, MU NORML sought to sell promotional T-shirts with a design featuring a marijuana leaf in the form of an animal paw, a stylized depiction of the Mizzou campus skyline and a marijuana leaf, and the group’s name. Because the design also included the name “University of Missouri – Columbia,” MU NORML President Benton Berigan applied for official approval on September 5 in accordance with university policy.
Berigan’s submission was rejected because it allegedly used the university name “in connection with promotion of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.” Berigan responded via email on September 21, arguing that MU NORML “exists to reform Cannabis laws through political engagement and community education” and “do[es] not advocate the use of Cannabis as a drug.”
On October 5, Berigan received an email from Mizzou administrators confirming that his proposed designs were rejected because of “drug-related imagery, specifically the cannabis leaf.” The administrators contended that MU NORML’s use of “an image of a cannabis leaf in conjunction with university icons could be considered a form of endorsement.”
FIRE wrote Mizzou on April 22, explaining that under the First Amendment, the university may not reject MU NORML’s submissions because it disagrees with MU NORML’s viewpoint. FIRE also explained that longstanding legal precedent prohibits public universities from censoring student speech because of unreasonable concerns that the viewpoints expressed might be interpreted as the university’s own.
After Mizzou Interim Chancellor Hank Foley sent FIRE an unsatisfactory response, FIRE wrote Mizzou a second letter on May 20 requesting a substantive reply by June 3. Mizzou has yet to respond.
In neighboring Iowa, the NORML chapter at Iowa State University (NORML ISU) filed a First Amendment lawsuit against ISU in 2014 following almost identical censorship. Like Mizzou, ISU rejected NORML ISU’s T-shirt design featuring a cannabis leaf and ISU’s trademarked initials due to the University’s trademark policy.
This past January, a federal judge ordered ISU to stop censoring ISU NORML’s T-shirts. The ISU lawsuit is part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project aimed at eliminating speech codes at public colleges and universities nationwide.
“MU NORML is a student organization created to facilitate an educational dialogue regarding the history and policy implications of our nation’s marijuana laws among students and faculty at the University of Missouri,” said Berigan. “The university’s decision is an immediate threat to students’ intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights.”
“Political speech is accorded the greatest protection of any form of expression under our Constitution,” said Dan Viets, an attorney with the Missouri Civil Liberties Association and Missouri state coordinator for NORML. “MU should encourage vigorous and open discussion, but all too often suppresses it because of misplaced fear of controversy and political repercussions.”
FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.