Students have always known that college dorms were a poor substitute for  home, but what the University of Nebraska-Kearney argued in federal court  last week is a stunner: the University’s counsel argued (in trying to deny that students had fair housing rights) that dorms are more like jail than residential housing. Yup, you read that right. According to the University of Nebraska-Kearney’s argument in federal court, students should just feel like they’re inmates, because they ARE inmates. Dorms are like jail. The university said so before a federal judge.

In case you missed this recent case news (4/19/13), the U.S. Federal District Court for Nebraska ruled against the University of Nebraska-Kearney in a “fair housing” dispute with one of its students, who wanted a medically prescribed therapy dog allowed in the university’s mandatory freshman dorm. The University denied the student’s request because it had a no-pet rule. The federal government supported the student’s complaint under the Fair Housing Act which brought the case against the university.

Even the judge was appalled by the University of Nebraska-Kearney’s (perhaps not so) outrageous comparison. The university “makes the unflattering association between university housing and jail,” the judge wrote, “which has been held not to be a dwelling within the meaning of the FHA. But the Court is not convinced that the comparison is apt” (emphasis added).

The key question was whether university housing falls under the reach of the Fair Housing Act. The summary of the judge’s decision reads:

The Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. (FHA), generally makes it unlawful to deny a “dwelling” to a person based on the person’s handicap. The question presented was whether student housing at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (UNK) is a “dwelling” within the meaning of the FHA. The Court concluded that it is, making the anti-discrimination provisions of the FHA applicable. Accordingly, the Court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and granted the United States’ motion.

The jail-university comparison is an embarrassing and humorous sidebar to this case. Two bigger and more troubling issues are (1) the overbreadth of the law’s definition of “dwelling,” and (2) the federal government’s willingness to go after colleges and universities on FHA grounds. This case gives the feds almost unlimited breadth to pursue folks who are connected to this expansive notion of  “dwellings.”

And almost certainly, under a liberal-leaning federal government near you in the near future, the feds will very likely pursue similar cases against religiously based colleges and universities  on FHA grounds regarding the “fair” housing of practicing homosexuals on campuses.

If it reaches that point, the University of Nebraska-Kearney’s ham-handed  comparison will become frighteningly true:  in the name of “fair housing,” university housing will become morally equivalent to the country’s worst jails.

See Inside Higher Ed for more on the story.