As the legal fight over House Bill 102 and other bills escalated last spring, the student government at one of Montana’s two largest universities joined in, while the other remained an observer to the ongoing battle.
The Associated Students of Montana State University (ASMSU) signed on to a lawsuit June 3 challenging the constitutionality of House Bills 102, 112 and 349 and Senate Bill 319.
HB 102 allows guns on campus. HB 112 requires transgender athletes to compete under their assigned-at-birth sex. HB 349 expands free speech on campus while prohibiting student group discrimination. And SB 319 allows politial student group opt-in funding.
The Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) did not choose to join the legal fight. But both organizations believe they have the legal standing to do so independent of their universities.
UM did not believe ASUM could sign on to the lawsuit independently of the University. Though ASUM disagreed, it opted not to sign on to the suit.
“It wasn’t necessarily about just taking our stance and running with it. It was really about this whole concept of the Board of Regents and their constitutional authority, which we felt was violated by the Legislature in this session,” ASUM’s president Noah Durnell said. “And so after the Board of Regents signed on we really didn’t think ASUM joining was going to be the most effective approach to meeting those ends.”
Durnell said the organization didn’t join the suit because the Montana University System’s Board of Regents, the state’s higher education authority, eventually filed another suit against HB 102 — but also because UM informed ASUM that if students are further harmed by any bills, the University will work with ASUM to defend students.
Norris Blossom, ASMSU’s president, said ASMSU joined the suit to protect the constitutional authority of the Board of Regents and not because of the substance of the bills.
“Regardless of what the bills would’ve been, it’s always inappropriate for the Legislature to pass bills that are clearly in the realm where the Board of Regents should govern,” Blossom said.
ASMSU signed onto a lawsuit brought forth by the Goetz, Baldwin & Geddes Firm, as well as the Graybill Law Firm, following majority approval by its student senate. This suit is separate from the one brought by the Board of Regents on May 27 that challenged the constitutionality of HB 102 and resulted in an indefinite hold on the law June 7.
Durnell said last spring was “tense” after ASUM researched whether it had legal standing to independently join the same suit ASMSU did. He said research done by ASUM’s executives and student legal interns with professional legal advice from Lou Villemez, the ASUM legal services director, led to the conclusion ASUM could join the suit independent from UM.
Durnell said one of the cases that supported this conclusion was Associated Students of the University of Montana v. The City of Missoula. According to a memo that was part of ASUM’s legal research, the Montana Supreme Court classified ASUM as “an unincorporated association of students enrolled at the University” in the 1993 case where ASUM was a plaintiff.
Durnell said UM disagreed with ASUM’s findings that it could join the suit independently from UM, an area there is still no consensus on. Durnell said this disagreement was not what prevented ASUM from joining the suit, though.
“If we decided it was the best decision for us to join we would’ve still joined, and determined whether we were able to later, because it was so time sensitive,” he said.
Dave Kuntz, the director of strategic communications at UM, said the University has no official stance on if ASUM can represent itself independently in court. He said any conversations on the topic were informal and not official legal opinions.
Kuntz said the Board of Regents lawsuit is the best way to challenge HB 102’s constitutionality, a sentiment Durnell agreed with.
Blossom said ASMSU did not ask MSU’s permission to join the suit but informed them of their decision to join it. He said the organization did not hear much feedback, good or bad, from the administration.
“At the end of the day we serve students here at Montana State University, we don’t serve administrators at MSU,” he said.
Blossom said MSU’s administration and ASMSU are “close partners,” but ASMSU has autonomy from the University.
Durnell said ASUM believes a victory in the Board of Regents suit against HB 102 could set a precedent that could then be used in litigation against other bills, like those mentioned in the other suit.
Durnell said the latest legislative session has shown how much UM cares about its students. He said ASUM’s ability to join a lawsuit or not has no implication on how well the organization can represent UM students.
“I have no doubt in ASUM’s ability to represent students, and that should not be defined by our ability to join a lawsuit or not,” he said.