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Lawsuits filed to overturn ‘unconstitutional’ bills affecting Montana universities

(Missoula Current file)

HELENA — A broad coalition of labor groups and Montana university students, faculty and former officials filed suit Thursday to overturn four new laws, calling them a dangerous, unconstitutional intrusion on the Board of Regents’ authority to manage state colleges.

The lawsuit filed directly with the Montana Supreme Court, also came on the same day the state Board of Regents did the same, suing to overturn portions of the law prohibiting the regents from banning firearms on state campuses.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday to file its lawsuit. Both suits asked the Supreme Court to issue an emergency order blocking the gun law from taking effect on June 1.

While the Regents’ suit refers only to portions of the gun law that requires firearms be allowed on campus, the other lawsuit goes after three other measures passed by the 2021 Legislature’s Republican majority and signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.

  • House Bill 112, which prohibits transgender athletes from playing on collegiate sports teams that don’t align with their gender at birth.
  • Senate Bill 319, which bans political groups from conducting voter registration and voter-turnout efforts on state campuses and prohibits a University of Montana funding mechanism for a campus-housed activist group, MontPIRG.
  • House Bill 349, which creates new guidelines for free speech and anti-harassment policies on state campuses.

The coalition lawsuit said it’s not taking aim at specific policies in the bills, but rather seeks to “vindicate the (Board of) Regents’ authority” to run the state university system, free from legislative dictates.

“Although the line between the Regents’ power and the authority of the Legislature is not always clear, the challenged measures are beyond the pale,” the suit said.

The Legislature has the power to appropriate money for the university system, ensure accountability of those funds and legislate “for the general welfare,” the suit said.

But the state constitution gives the Board of Regents the power to manage the system, like a separate department of government, including issues like firearm possession, athletics and student-harassment policies, it said.

“The Regents have both the authority and the capability to deal with (firearms on campus),” the suit said. “It is not up to an overbearing majority of the Legislature to impose their view on guns onto the state universities.”

The plaintiffs in the coalition lawsuit include two former regents, former Commissioner of Higher Education Larry Pettit, three professors, three college students, two faculty groups and the Montana Federation of Public Employees.

“The people of Montana … demand our constitution be upheld and respected,” said Amanda Curtis, president of MFPE. “House bills 102, 112 and 349 and Senate Bill 319 are blatantly irresponsible and run afoul of the Montana constitution.”

The suit named the state and Gov. Gianforte as defendants; the regents’ lawsuit named Attorney General Austin Knudsen as the defendant.

“Despite what the liberal Board of Regents wants to believe, they don’t have the power to deprive Montana students of their Constitutionally protected rights – the 2nd Amendment included,” Knudsen responded on Friday.

A spokesman for Knudsen also said Friday that the coalition lawsuit, led by the MFPE, is an attempt by the group and its allies to succeed in court where they failed at the ballot box last November.

“Montanans overwhelmingly rejected the Democrats’ extremist agenda in November, so they’re adopting the national playbook used against Trump: Filing as many lawsuits as they can in front of left-wing judges,” said Emilee Cantrell. “This is why reforming the Montana judiciary and stopping the practice of liberal trial lawyers hand-picking judges is so important for the future of the state.”

Cantrell’s statement is a reference to another new law that gives Gov. Gianforte more direct authority to appoint judges, rather than a nominating commission that’s been in place for the past 50 years. That law also has been challenged in court as unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs in the coalition lawsuit filed Thursday said they’d been planning their suit for several weeks, but wanted to synchronize their efforts with any legal action taken by the regents.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs raised a number of concerns about the new laws – including students citing fears for their own personal safety, because of the gun law, and “negative effects on enrollment due to the concerns of prospective students and their parents over student safety on the campuses.”

The regents’ suit said the bill banning them from prohibiting firearms on campus has “impermissibly curtailed (their) authority to determine the best policies to ensure the health and stability of the Montana University System.”

The regents have banned firearm possession on state campuses for nearly 30 years – except by campus security officers.