Big City Coffee files $10 million lawsuit against Boise State

The owner of Big City Coffee filed a lawsuit against Boise State University Friday, saying she suffered at least $10 million in damages when she was forced to close a campus coffee shop.

According to the state’s online court portal, Sarah Jo Fendley is suing several current and former Boise State officials, including President Marlene Tromp, and is requesting a jury trial.

The lawsuit comes close to a year after Fendley says she was pushed off campus because of backlash over her vocal support of law enforcement. Kevin Holtry, Fendley’s fiance since 2020, is a former Boise police officer who was paralyzed when he was shot five times while on duty in November 2016.

Boise State officials have maintained that they did not force Big City Coffee to close, saying they instead honored the vendor’s request to sever a contract.

The ongoing dispute between the coffee shop and the state’s largest university has become a political flashpoint, and that continued with Friday’s filing.

News of the lawsuit came not from the plaintiff or her attorneys, but instead through the Idaho Freedom Foundation — a right-wing group that has consistently condemned what it calls Boise State’s social-justice agenda. The group has said Big City Coffee was a victim of campus “cancel culture.”

The Freedom Foundation posted the lawsuit on its website Friday. Michael Roe, one of Fendley’s attorneys, confirmed the veracity of the lawsuit to Idaho Education News Saturday.

The lawsuit levels several complaints against Boise State — including violations of Big City Coffee’s rights to free speech, violations of the company’s right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment, and claims that the university failed to defend Big City Coffee “against a defamatory attack by a vocal minority claiming that Plaintiffs were racists and support racism.”

The lawsuit recounts Big City Coffee’s two months on campus — saying Fendley secured a business loan and hired students to staff the shop, unaware of a growing “firestorm” over its presence on campus. Big City Coffee says the university’s Inclusive Excellence Student Council led the opposition to the contract, starting a backlash that university administrators “directly (or by tacit approval) fomented on the BSU campus.”

The lawsuit also recounts some of the political controversy that has plagued Boise State. It mentions legislators’ decision to cut $1.5 million from Boise State’s budget in an attempt to curb social-justice initiatives. The lawsuit mentions Boise State’s decision to suspend required undergraduate diversity courses — but does not mention that an external investigation found no basis to claims that students were harassed during the classes, based on race.

Boise State declined comment on the lawsuit Monday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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