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Big City Coffee owner files suit against Boise State for $10 million

A Boise coffee shop, bakery and restaurant is taking Boise State University to court, alleging that its satellite location closed due to what it calls the university’s “aggressive social justice agenda.”

On Friday, Big City Coffee owner Sarah Jo Fendley filed a complaint in Ada County District Court against the school, University President Marlene Tromp, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Leslie Webb, Vice President for University Affairs and Chief of Staff Alicia Estey, and Vice President for Equity Initiatives Francisco Salinas requesting a jury trial and $10 million in damages. The complaint accused Boise State and the administrators of violating her First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the Idaho Consumer Protection Act, and interfering with her contract with campus food vendor Aramark.

The news of the lawsuit came to light Friday afternoon when Idaho Freedom Foundation posted the complaint in its entirety on its website and social media. This suit follows a tort claim Fendley filed against the university in March.

Boise State spokesperson Mike Sharpe declined to comment on the suit Monday.

“Boise State University does not comment on pending litigation,” he said in a text message.

Big City has opened and later closed in two other locations in addition to the Boise State shop. Cafes on State St. and at the Boise Airport also opened and later closed or changed ownership and name.

Thin Blue Line stoked controversy

Last fall, some students raised concerns about the local shop opening a location in the Albertsons Library on campus. Fendley is a long-time supporter of first responders and prominently displays the Thin Blue Line flag at her Grove Street location. She is also engaged to Boise Police Officer Kevin Holtry, who is paralyzed after being shot five times on duty in 2016.

Students, including some involved with the student government’s Associated Students of Boise State University Inclusive Excellence Student Council, opposed the store because of the owner’s connection with the Thin Blue Line. The symbol has come to mean different things to different groups. Police officers and their supporters see it as a symbol honoring the service and sacrifice of officers. But the modified US flag with a blue stripe has also been displayed against movements that protest police brutality, including Black Lives Matter.

It’s unknown exactly how many students spoke out against the coffee shop or were in support. The bulk of the controversy started when a student posted about Big City Coffee and the Thin Blue Line on Snapchat, which Fendley shared and responded to on social media. Fendley regularly posted about the controversy and Boise State, amplifying opposition to her business on the coffee shop’s Instagram during the height of the controversy last fall.

In the claim, Fendley said opposition to Big City Coffee from the Inclusive Excellence Student Council mounted for months before her contract ended. She said if she was aware of the opposition, Big City Coffee would not have borrowed the funds necessary to set up the second location and worked to get it up and running.

[Old Big City Coffee spot at Boise State will see something new]

The complaint says Boise State is committed “fraud by omission” by not disclosing the opposition to the Big City Coffee location on campus.

“Defendants failed to disclose material information to the Plaintiffs that Defendants had a duty to disclose to Plaintiffs and of which Defendants knew Plaintiffs were Ignorant,” the complaint said. “That material information consisted of, among other things, the animosity and rancor directed toward the Plaintiffs based on their beliefs and expression, and that Defendants directly (or by tacit approval) fomented on the BSU campus.”

One meeting, two stories

A large chunk of the complaint focuses on a meeting between Fendley, Holtry, Webb, and Estey.

Big City Coffee’s campus location closed soon after an October 2020 meeting between university officials and Fendley that resulted in the cancellation of her contract with Boise State’s food vendor Aramark. But, accounts differ on what transpired in the private meeting.

Fendley’s complaint described the meeting as an “ambush,” where officials had already decided they would terminate her contract due to the pressure of the student activists and the school’s social justice agenda. The complaint said Fendley asked university officials if they would issue a statement supporting Big City Coffee against the criticism from students, but she was denied. Then, Fendley says Boise State’s Vice President for University Affairs and Chief of Staff Alicia Estey told Fendley “I think it’s best we part ways.”

Boise State declined to comment this week, but in the fall the school issued a statement saying it did not ask Big City Coffee to leave campus or compromise Fendley’s right to free speech. Lauren Griswold, the school’s associate vice president for communications, marketing, and creative strategy, told the Idaho Press Boise State administrators had “several conversations” with Fendley in an attempt to facilitate a dialogue between the students and Big City Coffee.

“Unfortunately they didn’t show any interest in taking that path and having that dialogue,” Griswold said in October.

Update: An earlier, unedited version of this story was published inadvertently. Updates with small edits throughout.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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