Boise State files motion to dismiss $10 million Big City Coffee suit

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Boise State University asked a judge to dismiss a $10 million lawsuit against the university and some of its administrators from a local coffee shop and bakery. 

In early October, Big City Coffee owner Sarah Jo Fendley filed a complaint in Ada County District Court against the university, 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. The suit requested a jury trial and $10 million in damages. The lawsuit alleges the shop’s satellite location was closed due to the university’s “aggressive social justice agenda.”

Judge Cynthia Yee-Wallace will decide in the coming weeks to grant Boise State’s motion to throw out the case or let it proceed to a jury trial, as requested by Fendley.

Boise State: No legal requirement to ‘pick sides’

The university filed a motion to dismiss the suit Friday, arguing the complaint did not meet proper standards set forth in the law or include specific actions the school and its officials took to suppress Fendley’s free speech. It said because the complaint was so “factually lacking” it could not be addressed and the matter should be thrown out. 

“Indeed, as the allegations of the Complaint make clear, Boise State University respected the First Amendment rights of both Big City Coffee and Boise State University students yet is now being sued for not stifling the debate in Big City Coffee’s favor,” the motion reads. “The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently echoed the importance of First Amendment rights on college campuses: ‘American universities have been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom’ that ‘have tried not to stifle debate by picking sides.’… In this case, Big City Coffee wanted Boise State University to do just that—to pick sides.”

The dispute started when 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.

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‘Threadbare recitals’ of Constitution

As the controversy over the shop mounted, a meeting was set up between Fendley, Holtry, Webb, and Estey. 

According to Fendley’s complaint, she asked if the university would defend her and her business “in the face of unfair criticism” and was denied. Boise State’s motion points out Fendley did not say the defendants terminated a contract between the university and her store, leaving the matter between her business and the school’s food and beverage contractor Aramark. 

Boise State’s motion calls Big City Coffee’s allegations “little more than threadbare recitals of elements which the United States Supreme Court has indicated are inappropriate.”

“Plaintiffs do not identify how they believe that the First Amendment required Defendants to ‘support or defend’ Plaintiffs against ‘a defamatory attack by a vocal minority’ of third parties,” the motion read. “Plaintiffs do not identify how they believe that the First Amendment placed a duty on all Defendants to inform ‘Plaintiffs of the campus “firestorm” prior to signing the Contract’ with Aramark (who, again, is not a party to this action). Plaintiffs do not allege any facts to support the claim that Defendants created a ‘hostile environment for Plaintiffs on the BSU campus’ and Plaintiffs do not identify why they believe that the First Amendment requires Defendants to insulate Plaintiffs from those who disagree with their political viewpoints.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
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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