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Big City Coffee files $10 million lawsuit against Boise State in months-long controversy over police, social justice

Photo by Drew Marshall
Content warning: this article contains the quoted use of anti-Black language.

Local coffee shop and cafe Big City Coffee has filed a $10 million lawsuit against Boise State University in the latest development of a months-long debacle that helped fuel a conservative political backlash against the university.

Big City Coffee owner Sarah Fendley is suing the university and demanding a jury trial, alleging that university administrators removed the small business from campus solely because of Fendley’s support of police. According to Fendley’s attorneys, this perspective is in opposition to the university’s “aggressive social justice agenda.”

Specifically, the plaintiff is suing President Dr. Marlene Tromp, former Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Dr. Leslie Webb, Vice President for University Affairs and Chief of Staff Alicia Estey and Vice President for Equity Initiatives Francisco Salinas.

The suit accused the defendants of violating Fendleys’ First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as the Idaho Consumer Protection Act, largely for “fraud by omission.” 

According to the lawsuit, Fendley was unaware that some students disapproved of the business’ open support of police until the day the contract was ended, when she claimed to have been “ambushed” by Estey and Webb. Had she known about the “firestorm,” she would not have opened the satellite location at Boise State, her attorneys wrote.

Big City Coffee occupied the first-story cafe storefront in Albertsons Library (now occupied by Guru Donuts) during the fall of 2020 after Starbucks moved out

In late October 2020, the cafe’s contract with the university had ended.

Fendley has said she was removed from campus, citing a lack of public support from the university after some students voiced disapproval of the cafe owner’s prominent support of police and displays of the Thin Blue Line flag as evidence.

The university has claimed that administrators did not force Big City Coffee out, but rather that they honored Fendley’s decision to sever their contract, after they refused to silence students, per Fendley’s request.

Boise State spokesperson Mike Sharp declined to comment on the suit, saying that the university does not comment on pending litigation. 

The Big City Coffee incident was one floodgate among many that have swamped the university in political controversy in the last several years. Tromp has been bombarded by far-right legislators in Idaho since before she took office, and the distaste for the university’s “social justice” programs rose to a crescendo in spring of 2021, when legislators cut $1.5 million in public funds from the university’s budget.

Regarding the Thin Blue Line, Fendley said that her support for police stems from personal experience and that of her fiancé, a retired Boise police officer, Kevin Holtry, who was shot five times and lost his leg on duty in 2016.

Fendley’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit: “Fendley’s support of Thin Blue Line is not a statement in opposition to any race, group or other movement. Specifically, and in particular, she does not intend such support to be a repudiation of Black Lives Matter or an attack on Blacks or any other minority or disadvantaged group. There has never been a single report of racist acts or statements against anyone patronizing or working at Big City. Fendley is not and has never been a racist.”

The lawsuit was first reported by Idaho Ed News on Oct. 2, via confirmation from Fendley’s attorney. It first appeared on the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) website, a far-right organization that — among many other things — aims to defund public education and has many loyal supporters among the Idaho legislature. 

The organization has also recently said that hospitals should stop “bitching and moaning” over crisis standards of care due to COVID-19, and has targeted departments at Boise State and other universities for years.

The Arbiter will continue to cover this lawsuit as it moves forward.

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