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
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
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.