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Campus contest -- conservatives vs. Nader groups

In Massachusetts, a network of college students organizes - and helps win - a campaign to pass a bottle-deposit law to fight litter. In New Jersey, members of a similar group receive course credit for work on projects in fields such as occupational safety, tax reform, and energy policy.

In Colorado, another such group fights for a law to give tenants the right to certain basic services from their landlords.

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None of this troubles Jack Abramoff, president of the College Republican National Committee, except for one thing: Funds for groups in these and 23 other states are raised through student activity fees collected by the colleges and universities.

Mr. Abramoff and his group have opened a campaign against the student activist groups, called PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups), charging that they are political in nature and should not be funded by what he says is a ''mandatory'' system. The Republican group is challenging the funding in student referendums and in state legislatures. In addition, individual students in New York and New Jersey have filed suit to have the student fee system abolished.

Leaders of the PIRGs argue that their groups are not political, but educational. They say that the fees, averaging $3 to $4 per student, are always the result of a vote by the student body or by a student government elected by students. They point out that without the substantial funding the fees provide, it would be impossible to give students this opportunity for ''hands on'' experience in citizenship.

Inspired by consumer activist Ralph Nader, the independent PIRG groups began appearing on college and university campuses in 1971 and today number about 160. Each operates independently, choosing topics that interest it. Funds raised through student fees and other sources are often used to hire a paid staff to aid in the work. Some register and work as lobbyists. Even so, say PIRG officials, the groups are nonpartisan, often having Republicans, Democrats, independents, and others among the members of a single campus group.

But Abramoff contends that although the PIRGs are not technically involved in partisan politics, they do back controversial social campaigns such as the nuclear freeze, abortion, homosexual rights, and ''anti-free-market'' activities - political positions that Abramoff says most students don't agree with. ''We don't dispute their right to lobby,'' he says. But instead of forcing all students to pay to support these activities, the PIRGs should have to ''go out and compete with other groups on campus'' for funds, he says.

Funded by $250,000 from the Republican National Committee and advised by conservative legal foundations, Abramoff's group is pushing in many states for legislation that would prohibit student funds from going to activities of a political nature.

One such bill is being considered by the Colorado Legislature. Thomas Wathen, executive director of COPIRG, which coordinates three PIRG groups on Colorado campuses, claims PIRGs are the victim of misinformation spread by Abramoff's College Republican National Committee.

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''They're in a whole big campaign against us,'' says Mr. Wathen. ''I never see a reference to what we really work on'' in the literature distributed by the Republican group, he says. Although the PIRGs are free to choose their own research topics, says Wathen, ''very few'' actually work on issues such as abortion or the nuclear freeze. They are much more likely, he says, to write a consumer guide to prescription drugs or bicycle safety. ''I'd say less than 5 percent of (COPIRG's) projects are considered controversial on campus,'' he says.

As for the student fees, the college Republican group ''never talks about how the fee is imposed only after a student referendum,'' he says. Students at many schools also may apply for a refund.

Abramoff's group is turning to legislation, says Wathen, because it is ''increasingly frustrated'' in its efforts to overturn PIRG fees through student votes. In a ballot at the University of Colorado last fall, says Wathen, students decided to keep the PIRG fee by a 2-to-1 margin. Abramoff claims a victory at Colorado State University last spring, when students voted to abolish the PIRG fee. Wathen says the vote was overturned and new balloting will be held soon.

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