Politics & Government

Ben & Jerry’s co-founder tempts Secret Service by stamping messages on money

Stamping political messages on money is legal, according to the non-profit that sells the stamps. StampStampede.org’s president is Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
Stamping political messages on money is legal, according to the non-profit that sells the stamps. StampStampede.org’s president is Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. The Kansas City Star

Ice cream maven Ben Cohen has moved on from Cherry Garcia and Imagine Whirled Peace to Stamp Money Out of Politics.

The Ben of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream says money is corrupting politics and practically everything else, from health care and student loans to energy and environmental policy. He passionately delivers a message to get money out of politics.

But Cohen may have a problem with the paper his message is printed on.

It’s money. U.S. money. Ones, fives, what have you. Some of the bills carrying Cohen’s message have shown up in the Kansas City area.

Cohen stamps his message on money and then hands it out to the likes of President Barack Obama, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders and other notable public figures. Often a snapshot of the stamped-money handoff shows up online.

“The reason why we have so much money in politics is because the Supreme Court ruled that money is free speech,” Cohen said in an interview. “We’re going to make our money scream.”

Cohen figures he has stamped tens of thousands of bills in the last four years. And he’s gotten tens of thousands of others to stamp their money with the same messages, according to StampStampede.org, a Cohen-led website that sells the stamps, ink, T-shirts and other items.

The stamps say “NOT 2 B USED 4 BRIBING POLITICIANS,” “STAMP MONEY OUT OF POLITICS,” “CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE,” “NOT TO BE USED FOR BUYING ELECTIONS” and similar phrases.

StampStampede.org also goes to great lengths to assure its customers that stamping money is legal.

“No, it’s not,” said Charles Green, the special agent in charge of the Secret Service field office in Kansas City. “We see it as a violation of the law.”

Cohen fires back that his stamping is legal. It’s political speech, protected speech, an exercise in First Amendment rights. And if the Secret Service wants to put a stop to it, Cohen said he’s ready to fight.

Money with a message

Stamping messages on money is an old habit. Just check your wallet.

Bills have circulated with “gay money” stamped on them to demonstrate the purchasing power of the gay community. Bills carrying the official signature of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have been stamped “tax cheat” right above his name because of his unpaid tax bill.

One stamp-money campaign targeted George Washington’s portrait with a word bubble that says “I grew hemp” and another stamped over the phrase “In God we trust.” In its day, the Occupy movement encouraged followers to stamp money with phrases like “Future Property of the 1%.”

The idea is to spread a message on a medium that gets attention, circulates widely and without limits, and is something that people hang on to — money.

A common reaction to money stamping is to say that it is illegal to deface the currency. And it is illegal to render money “unfit” to be used.

H&R Block found a way around that concern two years ago. Working with a New York advertising firm, Block used stickers. Easy to remove. No harm, no foul.

They carried H&R Block’s marketing slogan for the 2014 tax season, “Get your billion back, America” as well as a toll-free phone number and Block’s Web address. An Idaho woman complained to the U.S. Treasury when she received Block-stickered bills at a Kansas City hotel gift shop.

The Kansas City tax preparation firm stopped using the stickers, though it didn’t say why.

Hank Eskin knew why.

It was the other law about putting messages on money. The one that bans advertising on money and led the Secret Service to call him into its Boston offices 16 years ago.

Eskin runs WheresGeorge.com, a website that allows people to track where their dollar bills have been. Many have seen the website’s promotion stamped on dollar bills, usually in red ink. He started WheresGeorge.com in 1998 to get people to play the tracking game and buy his rubber stamps.

Eskin said he was aware of the no-advertising law, Section 475 of Chapter 18 of the U.S. code. He just didn’t expect the Secret Service to pick up on WheresGeorge, or pull him in, so quickly. He ceded to their “request” to stop selling the rubber stamps, particularly since it came with a promise to refer the case to the U.S. attorney general if he persisted.

WheresGeorge.com still operates and has expanded to a mobile app for Apple and Android devices. Other companies in the rubber stamp business still sell all kinds of WheresGeorge stamps.

Internet deep dive

Once Ben Cohen got into the money-stamping game, he knew where to go for advice. He had his people contact Eskin.

They met in the ice cream man’s condo, had lunches and dinners together. Cohen said they talked stamping, politics and other subjects and became friends.

In time, the student became the teacher.

“He’s done more research on this that I have,” Eskin said of Cohen.

Cohen, for example, has learned to focus stamping on small-denomination bills for more than the obvious reasons. Sure, they’re cheaper to give away. And they circulate more, which means more people see them than would see big bills. A buck will change hands 875 times in two and a half years, he said.

But relatively few small bills make it back inside the banking system once they start to circulate. It means they avoid the machines that scan money and kick bills out of circulation if they are too heavily marked.

Scanners also turned up on a “deep dive” Cohen said he took on the Internet.

He found documents — from the Federal Reserve or the U.S. Treasury, he can’t remember which — that requested proposals from bidders to make fast bill-scanning equipment. These are more sophisticated than vending machine scanners and are designed to pull marked money out of circulation.

The key for Cohen was learning where the scanners look so he could stamp his money where they don’t.

Legal case

Early on, Cohen also got legal help on stamping money.

He turned to Denver lawyer Stephen Justino, who was on the executive committee of MoveToAmend.org, another politically motivated stamping campaign that worked with StampStampede.org at the time.

Justino wrote the three-page letter on StampStampede.org backing up the assurances to money stampers that it’s all legal, under both the defacing and the advertising bans. By trade, Justino is a personal-injury accident lawyer, though Cohen said he also has legal support from a First Amendment lawyer.

Besides, Cohen has stamped money on television broadcasts, and he’s handed his marked money to the president.

“I’ve been stamping money very publicly for three or four years now. I’ve never had any contact at all from the FBI, or the Secret Service, anybody,” Cohen said.

The legal case goes something like this. Cohen’s group doesn’t deface money; they want it to keep circulating. It also operates as a nonprofit, officially through a 501(c)3 organization. It is not a business, and its stamps are not advertising.

“We don’t run afoul of the laws. H&R Block most certainly would,” Justino said in an interview. “They’re clearly using U.S. currency, Federal Reserve bills, as an advertising vehicle, and we’re not. We’re using it to express political opinion.”

And Cohen makes one other point. He stamps money because money is the issue, not merely his messenger.

Green, the Secret Service agent in Kansas City, is having none of it. Nonprofit? Doesn’t matter. Political speech? Doesn’t matter.

“If this were going on in Kansas City, and they were stamping the bills here and making a big deal out of it, Secret Service would be going to them and saying, ‘Hey, this is illegal and you need to knock it off.’ 

At the same time, Green confirmed that the Secret Service did not contact H&R Block about its stickers. There was no need to once the company stopped using them following a news report about the complaint.

Besides, the Secret Service has bigger fish to fry, protecting the president and countering counterfeiters. Stamped money doesn’t carry a priority. It would warrant a visit, but not handcuffs.

“Quite frankly, taking this to the U.S. attorney and asking them to prosecute it, we might get the high brow,” Green said.

On the other hand, stamping money hasn’t been tested in court. Cohen said he’s game should the Secret Service come knocking.

“If the government were to attempt to shut us down, sure, we would fight it,” he said.

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