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Boise State punished a coffee shop owner for her speech

The Hill logo The Hill 5/23/2022 Ethan Blevins, Opinion Contributor
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In late April, an Idaho judge allowed a vital free speech lawsuit against Boise State University to go forward. Big City Coffee, the plaintiff, had lost its contract with the university because some administrators and students were offended that the café supports local police. Thankfully, Judge Cynthia Yee-Wallace has denied Boise State’s recent motion to dismiss the case, and Big City Coffee will get a shot at justice for the latest episode of cancel-culture extremism. 

Big City Coffee’s experience reflects a growing trend among universities — an ugly mutation from enlightened beacons of free inquiry into cloisters huddled in a miasma of orthodoxy. A recent federal appeals court judge, in a case challenging a Florida university’s anti-speech policy, warned that many universities “have turned themselves into cathedrals for the worship of certain dogma.” In its shabby treatment of Big City Coffee, Boise State leadership has slouched toward this dismal trend. 

Sarah Fendley, Big City Coffee’s owner and a political moderate, is an enthusiastic supporter of first responders and police officers, especially those injured in the line of duty. This is a personal issue for Fendley, who is engaged to a retired Boise police officer who was paralyzed after being shot by a violent fugitive. She placed several signs and flags at her downtown coffee shop that display her support for this cause, including the Thin Blue Line emblem on the front door. 

In 2020, Fendley secured a contract with Boise State to open a Big City Coffee location in the campus library. She took out a $150,000 loan, hired staff, bought equipment, and sunk many extra hours into the new café. But her support for the police riled a faction of students who wailed to the administration that the contract with Big City Coffee was a “submission to white supremacy.” So, one day, with no warning or negotiation, Fendley says university leaders informed her that the café’s presence on campus was too controversial and canceled the contract.  

This is a disturbing example of how far universities will go to purge even the shadow of heresy from their midst. Fendley’s views are not outside those of mainstream America, yet she was punished for offending a few vocal students. The result was lost time, investment and opportunity solely because of her viewpoint.  

If only Fendley’s plight were an anomaly. Unfortunately, universities across the country too often bow to dogmatic zealots bent on cleansing their campuses of any hint of dissent. A UCLA professor, for example, was put on administrative leave and openly slandered by his superiors for declining to grade minority students more leniently based on their race. And Georgetown University recently placed legal scholar Ilya Shapiro on leave for tweeting that judges should not be nominated based on their race, yet defended on “free speech” grounds their recent decision to invite a speaker who has called for torturing and murdering Jews. The point is, selective free speech is not free speech at all.  

Sarah Fendley and these other examples are not the only victims of universities’ intolerance — viewpoint uniformity on campus hurts students, too. When schools narrow the sphere of legitimate debate or shout out differing views, students are left intellectually unarmed to grapple with the complexity, nuance and soul-searching offered by a true marketplace of ideas. Students’ growth depends on exposure to views that they oppose. A cloistered asylum, cut off from anything that clashes with the orthodoxy du jour, does not keep students safe; it only shelters their fragility. 

As Van Jones, Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser, put it: “I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.” 

Rather than sheltering students from differing viewpoints, the university should welcome debate on campus and respect those who don’t conform. And the First Amendment forbids government actors from punishing people for their viewpoints. Sarah Fendley’s case is a chance for a court to affirm not only this First Amendment principle, but also the simple premise that dissenting viewpoints make us stronger. 

Ethan Blevins is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans’ liberties when threatened by government overreach and abuse. Follow him on Twitter @ethanwb. Pacific Legal is not representing Sarah Fendley.

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