Stephen Colbert’s presidential run might not be serious — or legal — but the comedian’s candidacy still has considerable support at Yale.
On Oct. 16, Colbert announced on his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report” that he would run for president in just one state, his native South Carolina. Since then, an undergraduate student organization in support of his candidacy has launched at Yale, and a group of law students has redoubled its efforts to bring Colbert to campus for a speech.
Zeke Miller ’11 founded Yale Students for Stephen Colbert shortly after the satirist announced his candidacy two weeks ago. While Miller’s group, which currently has 14 members, remains relatively small when compared to large national Colbert groups that have organized on Facebook — one of which has over one million members — Miller said students he has spoken to at Yale are enthusiastic about Colbert.
But he said he thinks the campaign’s popularity is more a reflection of students’ frustration with government than their belief that Colbert would make a strong candidate.
“[Students] don’t see it as a serious campaign,” Miller said. “It’s a criticism of the current political climate.”
Despite the satirical nature of Colbert’s campaign, some legal scholars said they think Colbert is raising important questions about campaign finance laws.
By airing and producing Colbert’s show, Comedy Central may be providing illegal in-kind contributions to his campaign, George Mason Law School professor Allison Hayward said. These potential violations could cause the Federal Elections Commission to take action against Comedy Central, the campaign or both, Hayward said.
Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken said Colbert’s candidacy demonstrates the tension between first amendment rights to free speech and the restrictions on financial donations and other kinds of support that campaign finance laws create. She said it is often difficult to determine what constitutes speech in an election.
“Colbert is making campaign finance laws look silly, and in some sense, he’s right,” she said. “Campaign finance law has long been broken in the United States, and Stephen Colbert’s candidacy clearly reveals the problems with these laws.”
Comedy Central representative Reneta Luczak said the network is confident that it is acting within the constraints of federal campaign election laws.
The Federal Elections Commission does not comment on matters it is considering or that it potentially could consider, commission spokeswoman Michelle Ryan said. In order for the FEC to become involved, a formal complaint would have to be filed against Colbert, Ryan said. She declined to say whether anyone has made such a complaint.
Despite his possible legal troubles, clear enthusiasm for Colbert himself prompted the Yale chapter of the American Constitution Society on Oct. 21 to invite the comedian to speak on campus. Justin Cox LAW ’08, the group’s co-president, said it was the second invitation they have sent to Colbert in the past six months.
Although Colbert did not respond to the group’s first letter, the students are now seeking out members of the Law School community with personal connections to Colbert, Cox said. Until they find such connections, Cox said, the group will continue to use Colbert’s satiric techniques — which it attempted to do in both of Cox’s letters — to attract him to Yale.
The group’s Web site currently features the headline “Stephen Colbert CHICKENS OUT: South Carolina Presidential Candidate AFRAID to Get Truthy with YLS.”
Despite its humorous nature, Colbert’s candidacy is having a positive impact on the presidential race, Cox said.
“He’s adding something to the campaign,” he said. “People who wouldn’t otherwise be paying attention are now at least paying some attention.”
Both Cox and Miller acknowledged that Colbert is busy and said neither group is confident that the television host will visit Yale anytime soon.
Gerken said she would be eager to hear Colbert speak at Yale, regardless of his campaign’s legal status.
“I can’t be the only law professor who watches Stephen Colbert,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to go hear him speak?”
While Yale students and faculty interviewed said they would be eager to have Colbert speak on campus, some said they are less enthusiastic about his candidacy.
“He’s an image,” said Nava Rafati ’11. “I wouldn’t support his actual campaign, but it would be hilarious to come hear him speak.”
Kathryn Baldwin ’09, a native of Colbert’s home state, said South Carolina’s importance as an early primary battleground could make it difficult for Colbert’s campaign to gain widespread support.
According to one of Colbert’s speaking agents, he normally charges over $100,000 for a speaking engagement. He gave a commencement address at Knox College in 2006 and spoke at Florida State University’s homecoming that same year.