HELENA — The state Board of Regents Wednesday voted unanimously to go to court to challenge a new law prohibiting it from banning firearms on state campuses, saying the law may violate the board’s constitutional authority to run the university system.
“I do view our role as a partnership with the Legislature, but sometimes partnerships need clarity, and what we’re seeking here is clarity,” Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian said moments before the vote.
Regents said they had received an “unprecedented” level of comments from the public on the issue, and that the majority of the comments had urged them to stand up for their constitutional authority to manage the university system. University officials said they received nearly 5,000 emails on the subject.
The lawsuit would challenge a new law passed by the Republican-led Legislature in February, that requires the regents to end its current policy largely banning firearms on state college campuses.
While the regents voted 7-0 to direct university-system staff to file a lawsuit challenging House Bill 102, none of them spoke about the issue of firearms on campus.
Rather, they said they’re concerned about how HB102 tramples on the authority of the board to set policy for the system.
“I believe it’s our right, if not our obligation, to seek judicial review of HB102, to honor the constitutional balance that is affirmed in our (state) constitution,” said Board Chairman Casey Lozar.
State Rep. Seth Berglee of Joliet, the sponsor of HB102, told MTN News he's disappointed by the regents' action, and thought they might at least try partial implementation of a new policy before deciding to challenge it.
"I don't think this is a question of the Legislature telling the regents to do something," he said. "It's a question of the regents saying they have the power to deny constitutional rights of students and others on campus."
He also said he had made some changes to the bill, to respond to concerns of university system officials.
"They're suing instead of implementing the law," Berglee said. "I think this will unfortunately have a chilling effect on their relationship with the Legislature in the future."
By suing, the university system also forfeits $1 million that the Legislature appropriated to help implement new firearms policies on campus, for items such as firearm training, awareness campaigns and metal detectors at college athletic or other events where firearms could still be prohibited.
HB102 passed on largely party-line votes, with Republicans in favor. Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill into law on Feb. 18.
It says the Board of Regents is prohibited from enforcing any rule “that diminishes or restricts the rights of the people to keep or bear arms.”
It goes further by saying the board cannot regulate or place “an undue burden” on the possession or storage of firearms on university property, by anyone who legally possesses one.
However, the new law, whose restrictions on the university system take effect June 1, does allow the system to regulate the discharge of firearms, how a firearm is carried on campus, the storage of firearms in on-campus housing, the possession of firearms by someone who’s been disciplined for violence or substance abuse, and the possession of a firearm at an athletic or entertainment event, or event where alcohol is served.