Each semester, Meremac Community College in St. Louis, Mo., charged Crystal Lewis for a service called "MOPIRG." "I hadn't the slightest idea what it was," she says. The fine print on her bill read: "If you opt not to support MOPIRG, please deduct this amount from your payment." So she did. But she still wasn't sure what she was no longer paying for.
She was paying for a myriad of causes and advocacy efforts sponsored, endorsed and overseen by Ralph Nader. And if you're in college or have kids in college, the odds are pretty good that you're supporting Ralph Nader too. You probably didn't know that, did you? And that's just the way Nader and his nationwide network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGS) would like to keep it.
The PIRG idea was born in the late 1960s, but really caught on through the 1970s and 1980s. It has again picked up momentum in the last few years, due mainly to the publicity that accompanied Nader's presidential campaign. The scam varies from campus to campus, but it basically works like this:
Each time a college student registers for classes, he or she is automatically billed somewhere between three and eight dollars, all of which goes directly to the local PIRG chapter. There, it's funneled directly to the state chapter, where it's used to lobby state legislatures on issues like tougher emissions standards, campaign finance reform and a bevy of other environmental and anti-corporate causes. Very little if any of the money actually stays at the campus where it's generated.
It's also used as "seed money" for more fund-raising campaigns. And about 10 percent of the money goes to USPIRG, the national chapter, where it's used to lobby on the federal level.
The standard procedure for start-up campus PIRGs works like this:
First, they attempt to institute mandatory, nonrefundable "contributions" from the student body either through a student referendum, a petition drive or by going through school administrators. The University of Wisconsin requires all of its students to donate to the local PIRG chapter, as does the University of Oregon, and about a third of the state colleges in New York's SUNY system.
If that doesn't work, PIRG chapters attempt to institute a "reverse check" system, where each student automatically donates to PIRG each time he registers for classes, unless he specifically knows to look for an already checked box asking for his support -- and "unchecks" it.
If they can't win support there, PIRG groups will attempt a "refundable fee" system, where each student is automatically billed, but can request a refund by taking the bill to the university registrar or bursar's office, filling out some paperwork, then taking the form to the local PIRG's campus office to get the money back.
Such systems rake in millions for PIRGs because they put the burden on college students to educate themselves about each line item on their tuition bill, or to go to great effort for a comparatively small refund, particularly unlikely when mom and dad or Mr. Perkins and Mr. Stafford are paying for college anyway.
Craig Rucker is executive director for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, an organization that's been fighting the PIRG scams for years. Rucker estimates that Nader's causes take in somewhere between $10 and $20 million annually from college students, most all of it unwittingly.
What's remarkable is the blatant, transparent hypocrisy the PIRGS use to defend their tactics. The USPIRG Web site claims that mandatory student fees earmarked for liberal activism are "protected by the First Amendment," and are intended to "foster a marketplace of ideas."
Yet that same USPIRG Web site is a staunch supporter of radical campaign finance reform, and says that contributions to political candidates are not political speech and, therefore, not protected by the First Amendment.
Get it? The act of forcing students at state colleges to fund causes they don’t believe in is "protected speech," but voluntarily giving to a political candidate isn't. Remarkable.
This is also the same Ralph Nader who (correctly, at least on this issue) rails against corporate welfare, because he says it's deplorable to take money from taxpayers and then funnel it to corporations whose interests might be different from those of said taxpayers. It's the same Ralph Nader and USPIRG organization that cries out against the "injustice" of ATM fees, and criticizes credit card companies for preying on the naivete of college kids.
Yet this same Ralph Nader and USPIRG has no problem with mandating, tricking or manipulating college students into donating to leftist activism.
But there is at least a bit of good news. Rucker's organization has had some success in fighting PIRGS at the ballot box, in the state house and in the courts. Organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education are working to educate college students of their right to withhold funding.
Two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases (Rosenberger v. University of Virginia and Southworth v. University of Wisconsin) have validated at least the concept of mandatory student fees, but also require that the system for distributing those fees be "viewpoint neutral."
So the PIRGs' mandatory fees it would seem are bound for litigation, and will likely be found unconstitutional.
But it's at least possible that the "reverse check" and similarly underhanded funding methods could survive a court challenge. At that point, it will be up to organizations like C-FACT and FIRE, as well as concerned taxpayers, to make state legislators and university boards of regents aware of their displeasure with such schemes.
More importantly, it will, and is, up to individual college students and their parents to scrutinize their tuition bills, as Crystal Lewis did, and be sure the checks they write are funding an education, not causes for Ralph Nader's 2004 campaign platform.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at www.theagitator.com.