Judge dismisses most claims in student fee lawsuit against Minnesota State
The student association for Minnesota’s public two-year colleges is unlikely to win its lawsuit against the the Minnesota State Board of Trustees over a rejected fee increase, a federal judge said Monday as he dismissed much of the case.
LeadMN filed the lawsuit in March, accusing the board of denying a student fee increase in May 2021 because the two groups have clashed over tuition and other issues.
The proposed increase, from 35 cents per credit to 61 cents, would have funded LeadMN’s plan to double its staff in order to boost fundraising, increase student advocacy on campuses and provide direct services to students at the 26 colleges.
Ruling on competing motions Monday, U.S. District Judge Eric Tostrud dismissed all of the student association’s legal arguments except one; the remaining First Amendment claim says that the board’s finance committee refused to approve the higher fee in retaliation for LeadMN’s advocacy, which often has conflicted with the board’s goals.
“It is plausible that the prospective financial magnitude of the (Minnesota State) Board’s failure to approve the fee increase and the power disparity between LeadMN and the Board with respect to LeadMN’s funding … would prompt a hypothetical person of ordinary firmness to self-censor or pump the brakes on protected activities considered hostile to the Board in order to increase the prospects that the fee increase, or perhaps a future fee increase, might be approved,” Tostrud wrote.
However, Tostrud also refused LeadMN’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have imposed the higher fee while the case was pending. That’s largely because the association doesn’t have a “fair chance” of winning the case, he wrote.
Tostrud found that the complaint LeadMN submitted when it filed the lawsuit undermined its own legal argument, which is that the board’s action could have a “chilling” effect on LeadMN’s student advocacy.
“LeadMN’s Complaint includes allegations that it was not chilled. Specifically, LeadMN alleges that it ‘continues to publicly advocate for issues that are important to (Minnesota State) students, regardless of their popularity with the Board,’” the judge wrote.
Further, Tostrud wrote that LeadMN’s evidence of retaliation – a series of text message in which a trustee notes the inconsistency of LeadMN trying to raise student fees while also arguing for a tuition freeze that trustees didn’t want – was “more benign than incriminating.”
Meanwhile, the judge said, Minnesota State provided evidence that its finance committee had legitimate reasons for its decision: They worried about the legal liability of students providing mental health and benefits-navigation services to students and about duplicating the efforts of existing employees.
Board chairman Roger Moe said by email Tuesday that the board “values a collaborative, consultative and constructive relationship with all our constituents, including student groups.”
LeadMN Executive Director Mike Dean said by email that students “have a right to speak without fear of retaliation from Minnesota State. We intend to bring our case to trial, where we will demonstrate that Minnesota State administrators sought to silence students’ voices in violation of the First Amendment.”
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