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Tensions brew as Big City Coffee vacates Boise State campus location over 'Thin Blue Line' flag

A group of students protested the shop owner's support of the police. Others argue that the shop is simply the latest victim of the so-called "cancel culture."

BOISE, Idaho — Big City Coffee has closed down its location in the library of the Boise State campus after controversy about the shop displaying a "Thin Blue Line" flag at its downtown Boise location.

The coffee shop opened on campus in September.

Then last week, someone posted on Snapchat, encouraging students to stay away. The controversy stems from owner Sarah Fendley's support of police and the display of a Thin Blue Line flag, which is seen by some as a counter to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Fendley took issue with the critical post and responded with a post of her own, explaining why she supports police. In short, it's because of her fiance, Kevin Holtry, a Boise police officer who was shot in the line of duty nearly four years ago.

Late last week, Fendley attended a meeting with school administrators, and by Monday, Big City Coffee's campus location was closed.

Holtry told KTVB on Thursday that Fendley was unaware of a pushback to her opening on campus.

Apparently, for some time now, members of Inclusive Excellence Student Council, which is part of the Associated Students of BSU, have made known their frustrations that the coffee shop was even invited to open on campus in the first place.

During an Associated Students of Boise State University (ASBSU) meeting on September 7, members of the school's 'Inclusive Excellence Student Council' (IESC) expressed their frustration with bringing the business to campus.

"We are supporting an organization that blatantly supports the Thin Blue Line and every Black person I know has stories of being treated unfairly at this place," member Alyssa Wainaina said. "I believe that they should have never been brought to campus and if it can be reversed it should be. Not reversing it sends a statement across campus. There should be more marginalized student voices on this. You need to find a way to cancel this contract because every marginalized student knows about this affiliation and that it is a dangerous place."

RELATED: Boise interim police chief banned public display of Thin Blue Line symbol by BPD

Some are arguing that the coffee shop was forced off-campus and that the company was the latest victim of the so-called "cancel culture." But Boise State president Dr. Marlene Tromp told KTVB that's simply not true.

"We invited them when Sarah had a Blue Line flag in her downtown store. There was an invitation to them as a valued local vendor," Tromp said. "We want people to be able to express what they believe and express what they're committed to. That's what a university is for."

Tromp added that, ultimately, everyone had the right to express their opinions.

"I'm hearing from a lot of people who are expressing their support for Big City Coffee right now," she said. "Our students... are welcome to express their views, just like Big City Coffee was welcome to express theirs. Those students have a right to their freedom of speech as well."

According to Tromp, university officials had hoped to mediate a dialogue between the students and Big City Coffee.

"Right now in this culture and in this country is a very, very pitched disagreement about what's happening in policing," she said. "And there are enormous tensions about that. And we wanted to be a part of there being a conversation about that. But I also understand, there's a lot of hurt and pain in these conversations on both sides, and we can't force people to talk with each other when they're not ready."

Holtry, who was in the meeting with school administrators, has a different take. He told KTVB that Fendley asked during the meeting for the university to put out a statement of support for the coffee shop, but they refused.

"That's when the president's assistant leaned back in her chair and said, 'Well apparently this is the point we've come to where we need to agree that we're going to separate our agreement at Boise State,'" Holtry said. 

He added that had she known there would be such push-back to her opening on campus, Fendley would never have gone forward with the campus location.

Holtry pointed out that there were never any Thin Blue Line flags - or any other memorabilia that expressed support for police - at the campus shop.

"But now all of a sudden, everybody's scared because of, you know, these inflammatory messages and social media posts," he said.

When asked if he feels like Big City Coffee was pushed out by a small contingent of people at Boise State, Holtry was unequivocal in his answer.

"Absolutely, 110%," he said. "That is exactly what happened."

The controversy surrounding Thin Blue Line flags has escalated in recent months in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis A wave of Black Lives Matter protests over the summer were often met with counter-protesters, many of whom waved Thin Blue Line flags.

In June, Boise Police Department interim chief Ron Winegar banned officers from displaying the flag in public spaces. It was still allowed to be displayed in BPD headquarters at City Hall West, which is closed to the public.

Winegar said the policy change was due to the fact that the Thin Blue Line had become a "divisive symbol for some," but believed it represented "dedication, sacrifice, and history."

On Wednesday night, the school put out a statement on social media:

"Boise State University has heard the community conversation regarding Big City Coffee's location on campus.

Here are the facts:

As a popular local vendor in the community, Big City Coffee was invited onto our campus. The business opened this fall. Our students hold a wide range of opinions about this business. After some students began speaking out against the owner's personal beliefs, we explained that we could not violate the First Amendment Rights of anyone on campus. Following that, the owner requested to be let out of the contract. We agreed to the owner’s request. 

At no time did the administration at Boise State ask Big City Coffee to leave campus. At no time did the administration ask Big City Coffee to compromise the owner’s First Amendment rights.

Boise State was working with the owner to help find a successful resolution to the concerns regarding free speech on campus. Big City Coffee’s recent actions signal that the business has chosen to leave.

Our campus is a place for all people to peacefully and freely express their views. A commitment to free speech is not unique to Boise State University; protecting speech is required by the First Amendment and is a core value of our institution."

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