Michigan’s college students — and often their parents — incur a swarm of expenses. Every year they are assailed by rising tuition, parking fees, textbook prices, housing, food costs and more. Another $12 fee hardly seems worth complaining about.
But something about this fee despoils one of our country’s fundamental values — freedom of speech.
All of Michigan’s 15 public universities charge "student activity fees" directly or hidden in tuition. These fees range from $8 to $50 per semester depending on the university and are charged automatically to all students. Some charge by the credit hour, while others have different rates for undergraduate and graduate students.
The fees support "Registered Student Organizations," which often are contentiously partisan groups that serve only a tiny percentage of student bodies. College Democrats, College Republicans, and various hobby and interest clubs can utilize these fees to pay for events and activities. RSOs typically submit a request for funds to a student board that determines which groups get money and in what amount.
On its face, student activity fees might seem a democratic way to give students access to resources that help them promote and encourage free speech. But freedom of speech is more than being able to say or write what one thinks; it also means not being forced to subsidize speech with which you don’t agree — one reason that the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment not only protects free speech, but prevents an establishment of religion. Thomas Jefferson expressed this principle eloquently in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."
For the right of free speech to have any meaning, it must be universal. Coerced contributions allocated to some RSOs but not others effectively create university-sanctioned views. New groups that are out of the campus mainstream ideologically or are critical of other RSOs or university practices are at a distinct disadvantage when seeking fee money.
Eliminating or making student fees optional would allow those who do not participate in extracurricular activities to use the money for something they value more. RSOs would then need to persuade individuals to join or make voluntary contributions. Each group’s core beliefs would enter the free marketplace of ideas and compete for interest and money.
Surely this would contribute more to a broad liberal education than being granted access to forced fees. Participants would receive invaluable lessons in how to effectively communicate ideas, raise funds, market events and generate and maintain participation in an organization. This is what nonprofits, political parties, church groups and event planners must do in the real world every day.
Coercing RSO contributions from state university students reinforces an entitlement mentality that, if carried beyond the university, is detrimental to civil society. The idea that everyone should be forced to pay for one’s particular cause not only fosters naiveté, but may contribute to the troubling trend of special-interest influence on public policy.
Public universities are open to all and funded by all through tax dollars. Since money is fungible, not only all students, but all residents are in effect compelled by the state to fund the activities of RSOs. Some might argue that subsidizing RSO speech should be accepted on grounds that any number of government-funded activities promote beliefs disagreeable to some; in fact, the content of university instruction itself can be controversial. Student fees at state universities are unique however, in that the RSOs they fund often have no pretense of special expertise, and their goals are explicitly ideological.
Direct subsidies to RSOs should be eliminated, or at the very least made optional. If universities insist on charging student fees, they should follow the example set by Ferris State University, which allows students to request a refund.
Students don’t need to immediately stop participating in RSOs that accept student fee money any more than they need to stop using roads if they dislike the transportation funding structure. But students and university officials would benefit from fighting for change and working creatively to further important causes without forced fee money and the strings attached to it. Some may consider these fees small, but the liberties they trample are priceless.
Isaac M. Morehouse is director of campus leadership for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.