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The Montana Board of Regents will issue a legal challenge to a new law that allows guns on university campuses, arguing it limits the Board’s constitutional authority to manage the university system.

In a unanimous vote on Wednesday morning, the regents directed the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to file a lawsuit against House Bill 102, which greatly expands firearm carry in the state, including on college campuses.

“The board really does value and respect the legislative process and will continue to work in good faith with our legislative partners. At the same time, I believe it’s our right, if not our obligation, to seek judicial review of House Bill 102,” said Casey Lozar, the board’s chair.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said he viewed the university system and the Montana Legislature as a partnership “but sometimes even partnerships need clarity and I think that’s what we’re seeking here.”

The bill’s sponsor Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, issued a statement Wednesday criticizing the Board’s decision and saying “they think their authority is so absolute that they can deny a student’s constitutionally-protected rights.”

Berglee said a majority of students live off-campus and safely carry firearms. During the legislative session, he worked with the university system to include their input into the bill, he said in the written statement.

“They’re now suing instead of implementing the bill we negotiated. I think this will unfortunately have a chilling effect on their relationship with the Legislature in the future,” Berglee said.

Ali Bovingdon, the university system’s chief legal counsel, said the legal team would begin working on a strategy. OCHE could decide to file a suit in the district courts or with the Montana Supreme Court. It could also decide to hire outside counsel.

“There are options for us to consider at both paths,” she said when asked about where the lawsuit would be filed.

Bovingdon told the regents the lawsuit would move at a fairly quick pace with the June 1 implementation date in mind.

“We will move deliberately but swiftly,” she said.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the new law on Feb. 18. While part of the law has already gone into effect, the campus provisions aren’t in effect until June 1.

The regents said they had received overwhelming public comment on the new law, which helped them in deciding what course of action to take.

“The amount of public comment compels action here,” Regent Todd Buchanan said.

The regents also highlighted the state’s 1972 constitutional convention that vested “full power, responsibility, and authority” to manage the Montana University System to the Board of Regents.

Mae Nan Ellingson, a delegate during the 1972 convention, said during the meeting’s public comment portion that HB 102 encroaches on the power provided to the Board of Regents in the constitution. She said that constitutional authority was “hard fought” and was considered a significant victory at the time.

“You have the obligation, in my opinion, to preserve this hard fought power,” Ellingson said.

Steve Barrett, a former Board of Regents chair and a Bozeman attorney, also provided public comment during the meeting.

“Constitutions either mean something or they don’t and that’s what you’re about to find out,” Barrett said.

Barrett also urged the regents and OCHE to consider filing their suit in the district courts rather than the Montana Supreme Court.

“It’s better if you can flesh these arguments out, have a chance to have things happen, have a chance to mend your course if its necessary rather than go directly to the Supreme Court where’s it sort of a one-shot deal,” he said.

A few people provided public comment against filing a legal challenge to the law, arguing the U.S. Constitution granted individuals the right to bear arms and the Board of Regents did not have the authority to infringe on that right. One person called the Board’s planned lawsuit “futile at best.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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