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It has long been the norm for the University to deny funding to student political groups.

So when the price tag for Republican presidential nominee John McCain's November 2007 visit to Penn came to nearly $5,000, members of the executive board of the College Republicans had to reach into their own pockets to help cover the costs, said College junior and College Republicans president Zac Byer.

But the Student Activities Council is looking at ways to ease that burden with a recent inquiry into the policy.

Due to its status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, the University is prohibited from endorsing specific legislation or political candidates, according to SAC executive board member and College junior Natalie Vernon.

SAC - which receives its funds from the University via the Undergraduate Assembly - is working with the Office of the General Counsel and political student leaders to explore what Vernon calls "gray areas" around these restrictions that have allowed other schools like Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame to fund political events.

This week, the body will turn over a list of potentially controversial expenditures to OGC so they can determine which restrictions are determined by the law and which by University policy, SAC chairman and Engineering senior Eric Van Nostrand said.

"All we're doing right now is trying to gain a deeper understanding of the status quo," he explained. They are looking for a "clear checklist" to see what is legal.

In the long run, this could mean a re-evalution of the way that SAC funds political groups, potentially lessening the burden on groups like the Penn Democrats and College Republicans.

The ability of student groups to host more high-profile speakers is "something that benefits the Penn community as a whole," said Penn Dems president and College junior Lauren Burdette.

Currently, SAC does give some contingency funding to these groups if they establish that the funds will not be used for partisan purposes.

For instance, they are funding a debate between the College Republicans and Penn Democrats next week because both viewpoints will be heard. They also fund certain Penn Libertarians events that are designed to discuss issues, not espouse a specific view.

Student groups say this system is not sustainable.

"Because it's so messy to get that emergency contingency funding, most of the time we don't even bother," said Penn Libertarian president and College junior Anne Skuza.

Without the annual opportunity to apply for funding like other SAC-recognized students groups, "we're being treated like second-class citizens in SAC," Skuza said, even though she sees her group as mostly nonpartisan.

It is unclear whether the inquiry will result in a substantial change to the current funding policies. SAC has not yet decided exactly what action to take when they receive the results.

OGC did not return repeated requests for comment, but Van Nostrand said they expect to receive an answer by tomorrow.

UPDATE: According to Van Nostrand, SAC no longer expects to receive an answer by tomorrow. Campus political leaders are reviewing the document before it is submitted to OGC. (Updated at 4:54 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008)

- Staff writer Rishav Kanoria contributed reporting to this article.

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