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Nader Scams College Kids

If you are a U of O student, you may want to look twice at your tuition bill. PIRG is taking money out of your pocket and is counting on you not knowing or asking how this can happen without your knowledge.
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.
making a point 13.Mar.2003 11:47

at the expense of the facts

Yes, the PIRG's are pretty corrupt and inneffectual, like most liberal organizations... And it seems like you want to make a big statement by tying Ralph Nader's name to it. Unforunately, he doesn't have anything to do with the PIRG's these days. Just because you start an organization doesn't mean you will always be making decisions for that organization. This seems to be more libertarian-republican astro-turf bullshit form letters.

cointelpro = cocksuckers 13.Mar.2003 17:02


cointelpro = cocksuckers (and not in a sex positive way)

why don't you crawl back in your hole and watch more right wing teevee.

So you guys think its okay to steal? 13.Mar.2003 17:37


Wait a minute. Letting people know that PIRG is stealing from them somehow makes me COINTELPRO? A Libertarian??? Does objecting to theivery somehow make me a conservative? Is it true then, that leftists are pro-crime, so long as the criminal is one of "us"?

the real theft from students 13.Mar.2003 18:48

not an athletic supporter

While agreeing with the poster above that these are rather ineffectual liberal organizations, this truly is the ultimate tempest in a teapot.

Typically the majority of 'student fees' that colleges and universities extract to fund student organizations go to athletics. The remaining bits are divvied up among the other campus student organizations - press, various clubs, etc. Yes, PIRGs are generally one of these organizations. What they get is a drop in the bucket compared to athletics, though, at most institutions. Try asking for those 'stolen' fees back sometime! Ha!

nice slant 13.Mar.2003 18:49


Very well done slanted story.

Has this "journalist" even bothered getting comments from PIRGs, or more importantly Ralph Nader?

NOOOOOO of course not.

Does the "journalist" even know how many organizations Nader has helped start over the years? Nope

But I am sure that so many corporate whore media outlets have been dreaming of the day they could remotely link Nader to something corrupt.

I don't like Athletics either but ... 13.Mar.2003 23:02


There is an admittedly tenuous connection between college athletics and the sponsoring college/students. PIRG's are entirely separate entities from college's. They provide no benefit to either colleges are the academic community. They have absolutely nothing to do with academia at all. If an organization like say the American Enterprise Institute or another conservative think tank/lobbying group were the ones picking students' pockets, entire campuses would be shut down. But since the thieves are liberal, then I guess it's okay, right? I mean, just about everybody here has either deflected attention from the thieves, or minimized the situation. I guess if PIRG is doing the stealing, then it is really "liberating" the money.