Missed opportunity in Big City Coffee, Boise State dispute over Thin Blue Line flag

Scott McIntosh
·4 min read

A $10 million lawsuit threatened by Big City Coffee against Boise State University reflects a broader problem that we have around civic discourse.

In this situation, as in so many others about sensitive topics, both sides have backed into their respective corners with an us vs. them mentality, and the extremes dominate the debate, with no room in the middle for reasonable discussion.

Scott McIntosh is the Idaho Statesman’s opinion editor.
Scott McIntosh is the Idaho Statesman’s opinion editor.

The owner of Big City Coffee, the downtown Boise coffee shop that briefly operated a satellite shop on Boise State’s campus, alleges that the university illegally ended its contract after complaints about her display of Thin Blue Line flags that show support for police.

Claiming breach of contract, Big City Coffee filed a tort claim seeking in excess of $10 million from Boise State and multiple campus officials.

Sarah Fendley, the owner, displayed the flags at her downtown coffee shop starting in 2016 to show support for law enforcement following the ambush killings of five Dallas police officers. Fendley said she has always had a deep appreciation for law enforcement, first responders and the military. Her fiance is Kevin Holtry, a Boise police officer who was shot by a fugitive while on duty and paralyzed.

Debate over law enforcement has boiled over, especially since George Floyd died while a police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. Floyd’s death, one in a string of similar highly publicized incidents over the past several years, brought to fever pitch the debate over the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to “defund the police.”

Unfortunately, substantive debate from either side has not materialized. Rather, ultra conservatives, Donald Trump supporters and even outright white supremacists and Nazis have made a show of force against any calls to defund the police. Meanwhile, some who support defunding have equated law enforcement with “criminal enterprises” and the Ku Klux Klan.

The Thin Blue Line flag was appropriated by the extreme right and used as a symbol against Black Lives Matter supporters. It was displayed during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 — where police were attacked and killed.

Both sides still use hyperbole, and any discussions about real police reform have been lost in the noise.

The debate has devolved into either you’re in favor of police or you’re against the police.

If anyone dares to suggest they support law enforcement, they’re lumped in with white supremacists and Nazis.

If you suggest we need police reform, you’re lumped in with anarchists who want to destroy the entire system.

In reality, for most of us, the truth lies in the middle: It is possible to support people like Kevin Holtry and good, decent, hardworking police officers who make our communities safer, and at the same time support Black Lives Matter and reasonable police reform.

Key pieces of information in this case are still missing from the public knowledge, and Big City Coffee’s tort claim is but one side of the story.

But it’s clear that Big City shouldn’t be banished from campus simply because Fendley supports law enforcement.

And it’s clear that Boise State officials have done a terrible job of communicating with Big City Coffee, as the complaints had been brewing well before the business was made aware of the controversy, and Big City was left with the impression it was no longer welcome on campus.

While critics of Big City Coffee have tended to be hyperbolic (with some students allegedly calling police officers corrupt, law enforcement a criminal enterprise and saying “the system exists to put Black people in prison”), that is their First Amendment right to express those thoughts. They also can choose not to patronize the business, without resorting to bullying tactics to drive it away.

Still unknown is whether Boise State officials formally terminated the contract, or whether, as Boise State officials claim, Big City was never asked to leave and never asked to give up its First Amendment right to free speech, and simply pulled the plug itself, thinking it was a foregone conclusion.

But we do know that not enough dialogue is going on in this case and not enough conversation is happening in the reasonable middle around this issue.

Without that discussion, the only thing you’re left with is anger, division, taking sides — and a $10 million lawsuit.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.