Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen wants to clean up government, but he has fielded a lot of questions lately over whether he might be breaking the law in the process.
That's because Cohen has launched a campaign to encourage Americans to rubber-stamp their dollar bills with messages against big money, such as "Corporations Are Not People" and "Stamp Money Out of Politics."
Cohen is distributing rubber stamps as part of a national "StampStampede" campaign to gin up popular support for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. On Oct. 11, Cohen will hop aboard the campaign's "Amend-O-Matic" stamp mobile for a whimsical road trip to showcase what he calls a "Rube Goldberg-esque" money-stamping machine mounted on a flatbed truck.
"It's kind of the same as selling ice cream: You want to have fun," said Cohen, a progressive activist who is underwriting the campaign through his Movement Resource Group, a nonprofit that helped fund the Occupy Wall Street movement. "We're doing something serious, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't have fun doing it."
But the legal questions raised by printing prominent messages on U.S. currency are entirely serious, and the StampStampede campaign tackles them directly on its website. The top entry under the site's "Stamping Tips" tab is a detailed answer to the question: "Is It Legal?"
"The short answer is yes," the site declares, explaining that it's illegal to deface money to make it unusable or to adorn it with commercial messages, but it says, "that's definitely not what we're up to." The site links to a memorandum from the campaign's lawyer, Stephen Justino of Denver, who explains in more detail that the stamp campaign would not violate federal statutes enforced by the Secret Service.
"Participants in this campaign would be marking, or otherwise altering, U.S. currency for the purpose of engaging in expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment," Justino's memo states.
A bigger question for Cohen may be whether messages on $1, $5 and $10 bills will really prompt a mass movement to amend the Constitution. A leading partner in the campaign is Move to Amend, which has won support in municipalities and states, as well on Capitol Hill, for its proposed amendment declaring that money is not speech and that human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights.
Given that the average dollar bill circulates for 4.8 years, Cohen argues, the campaign estimates that every bill stamped will reach 875 people. Besides, he added, it gives average Americans a way to participate in the process.
"The StampStampede money-stamping project is an opportunity for everybody to make their voice heard," Cohen said. "And anybody can do that. You can do it in the privacy of your own home. You can do it in public. You can do it at festivals, fairs. You can do it at work, you can do it at your club."
Just don't do it in front of a Secret Service agent.
Beyond the Beltway
The recently launched firm Aronnax Public Strategies is looking for outside-the-Beltway insiders to boost its client roster. The shop announced today the launch of its FedState Network, a group of lobby partners in state capitals.
Sen Mary Landrieu, D-La., poses for a selfie with LSU football fans as she campaigns at tailgate parties on the Louisiana State University campus before the LSU-Mississippi State game on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Buy photo here.