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Michael Moore and the Scandal of Student Fees

This fall, in one of the most spectacularly hyped and unsuccessful political efforts in recent memory, leftist filmmaker Michael Moore barnstormed America’s campuses in an effort to increase the youth vote. In speech after speech, he begged, pleaded, and even bribed students (with offers of ramen noodles and underwear) to get to the polls and vote for John Kerry.

Although Moore’s effort failed (not only was George W. Bush re-elected, but the proportion of "youth" voters did not increase in 2004), it was certainly lucrative. He charged most colleges between $30,000 and $40,000 per appearance and appeared at multiple colleges in battleground states across the country. According to Moore’s website, his "Slacker Tour" featured appearances at 63 cities, "mostly on campus." While it is impossible to determine Moore’s fee for each of those appearances (on occasion, he did appear for free), it is easy to see that the Slacker Tour brought Moore a considerable amount of money.

And much of that money was paid to him illegally.

The illegality was not Moore’s. There is no legal problem with a speaker accepting large honoraria from colleges. In fact, large honoraria are commonplace and may be paid to speakers on the left or right. The problem was not the fact of the payment but the source of the funds.

The funding for these appearances often came from the "student activity fee," a mandatory fee often assessed on students at both public and private universities. The justification for these mandatory fees (which can be as high as $500 per semester, per student) is the funding of student organizations and other kinds of "student activities." The goal is to enhance the educational experience by providing students with a wide range of extracurricular activities, including intramural sports leagues, cultural centers, and various student organizations.

Despite the laudable goals of student activity fee programs, they are often hijacked by political activists who use the millions of dollars of student fee money to provide massive subsidies to leftist political causes. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (better known as FIRE) has received dozens of complaints regarding the misuse of student fee funds. At one university, the College Democrats received seven times the funding of the College Republicans. At another university, a professor reported that upwards of 80% of all student fee money goes to explicitly left-wing organizations. Michael Moore’s speaking fee reportedly accounted for one-third of the total funds reserved for student organizations at one western college. The list could go on.

All of this brings us back to the law. According to the Supreme Court, a public university student activity fee is legal only if the funds are dispensed on a viewpoint neutral basis. Viewpoint neutral does not mean "without a viewpoint." It means that a university cannot favor one viewpoint over another when dispensing student activity fee funds. A university can (and must) fund explicitly partisan or religious student organizations, but it cannot fund or favor only those groups that the university likes. A university can use student activity fees to pay Michael Moore, but it must not do so at the expense of groups or speakers who have alternative political views.

As politically active students turn their attention from the presidential election, they should fix their sights on the imbalance and injustice of the student activity fee. It is simply wrong for a university to force its students to subsidize opinions they abhor while denying those students equal access to student fee funds. As countless electoral contests have demonstrated, money can equal power in the contest for ideas, and it is high time that colleges and universities provided equal access to dissenting views.

Because the law is clear, students can break the student fee monopoly at public schools by following a few, simple steps:

First, request a copy of your school’s student fee funding guidelines. If those guidelines are vague or provide the student fee funding board (whether elected or appointed) with broad discretion to grant funding requests with little or no guidance, than those guidelines are most likely unconstitutional. It is perfectly acceptable to impose funding restrictions based on viewpoint neutral criteria (such as club size or activity level), but it is not acceptable for student fee funding boards to give themselves broad power to grant funding requests without reference to explicit criteria.

Second, request a copy of your school’s actual student fee funding records. Virtually every state has an open records law that requires state institutions to make certain kinds of records available upon request. Student fee funding records cannot be hidden from students. If the actual records show large disparities in funding grants, there is strong evidence of viewpoint discrimination.

A note of caution: it is not viewpoint discrimination if large groups are given larger grants than small groups; nor is it viewpoint discrimination for a group to be given a smaller grant if it requests a smaller grant. If the records reveal that conservative groups consistently make smaller grant requests than leftist organizations, then conservative organizations should increase their grant requests and see if the actual awards increase to equivalent levels.

Finally, if your research reveals that funding guidelines are vague or if student fee awards are discriminatory, contact FIRE or Students for Academic Freedom. Universities cannot justify viewpoint discrimination, and FIRE or SAF will make universities comply with the law. With a bit of courage and persistence, the "Slacker Tour" of 2008 may be very different – perhaps featuring an actual debate rather than a one-sided leftist propaganda campaign.

David French is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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