How A Cannabis Leaf Became A Flashpoint For Free Speech

A spat over campus apparel is dragging the University of Missouri into a constitutional controversy after the school refused to let a student group use MU's name on a shirt featuring marijuana leaves.

The conflict began last year when the campus' chapter of the National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws (NORML) wanted to raise money by selling shirts featuring the school's name and two cannabis leaves.

But the administration rejected the request, likely because of licensing guidelines for using the school's name. According to story on the KTTN web site, MU won't allow their name to be used in "connection with the promotion of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs or in connection with pornography or other forms of expression limited by law."

But Benton Berigan - Executive Director of MU NORML - said the rule shouldn't apply to his group since they advocate for changing marijuana laws, not endorsing cannabis use. "We just want the rights that are afforded to other university organizations," he said.

And his case has gained support from The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) - a national nonprofit that defends civil liberties on university campuses. FIRE has written to MU twice to notify them that they are violating the First Amendment by refusing to let the NORML chapter print the t-shirts. They are currently waiting for the administration to respond to the complaint.

Benton Berigan, Executive Director of MU NORML, wearing the t-shirt at the center of the controversy.

Ongoing court case over marijuana t-shirts

This isn't the first time that a cannabis t-shirt has sparked a heated campus debate. In 2012, the NORML chapter at Iowa State University was similarly denied permission to use the school's name in apparel featuring marijuana leaves. The disagreement led to a court case in which a district judge ruled that the university had, in fact, discriminated against NORML ISU by refusing to license the shirts.

The 2016 court decision also came with a permanent injunction forbidding ISU from banning cannabis leaves in campus apparel. But ISU is appealing that decision.

So the ISU and MU student chapters must keep fighting on, which Berigan said they will do because of the free speech principles at stake.

"I see it as an immediate threat to student intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights," said Berigan. "This isn't an issue that is going away."

h/t Des Moines Register, KTTN.

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