Ben Cohen’s latest project has nothing to do with ice cream. It’s all about the Benjamins — and the Washingtons, Lincolns, Hamiltons and Jacksons.
The progressive activist and Ben & Jerry’s cofounder is spearheading a grassroots campaign that proposes a constitutional amendment to reverse the effects of Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates for unlimited money in political campaigns.
Cohen is “head stamper” at the Stamp Stampede, a nonprofit group that is distributing rubber stamps carrying anti-Citizens messages such as “Money is not free speech,” “Corporations are not people” and “Not to be used for bribing politicians.” The goal is to get as many people as possible to stamp their paper currency with these messages.
Launched in October, Stamp Stampede comes on the heels of the most expensive election in U.S. history — $6 billion spent by candidates, parties and independent super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Cohen calls his campaign a “petition on steroids.” That’s because a typical dollar bill lasts almost five years — and passes through an estimated 1750 sets of hands — before being removed from circulation, according to the Federal Reserve. In other words, money can be a marketing tool. Rubber stamps sell for $6 to $11 at stampstampede.org.
To spread the message further, Cohen teamed up with another organization, Move to Amend, to invent the Amend-O-Matic. He spent roughly $60,000 to build a road-trip-worthy vehicle — a rolling, Rube Goldberg-esque contraption he describes as “a piece of traveling kinetic art.” Part sculpture, part political roadside attraction, the Amend-O-Matic is like a food truck, but for money stamping. Mounted on the back of a van, it stamps bills of various denominations with pro-amendment slogans.
Move to Amend took the show on the road, but the cross-country Amend-O-Matic Tour didn’t go exactly as planned. Mechanical problems and Superstorm Sandy conspired to cancel the Northeast portion of the trip. Cohen says the van is currently holed up at a repair shop in Pittsburgh; he hopes to drive it back to Vermont in early December.
While the goal of the Stamp Stampede is to put democracy back in the hands of citizens, the question Cohen hears over and over is: “Is it legal?”
Not according to Darlene Anderson, a spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Printing and Engraving. She says defacement of currency is a violation of Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code.
That’s one interpretation, according to Cohen, who points out that the Stamp Stampede isn’t the first time money has been used to spread messages. An internet-based campaign — Where’s George? — has marked more than 215,000,000 dollar bills with its web address, wheresgeorge.com, and encourages anyone discovering the marked currency to document it by location and serial number. People have been tracking George’s whereabouts since December 23, 1998.
Stephen Justino, an attorney who provided a legal opinion to the Stamp Stampede, argues that stamping U.S. currency is actually a form of “expressive conduct” protected by the First Amendment, in part because it’s content-neutral. In other words, it doesn’t advertise a particular business or political party. Nor do the stamps alter the bill’s denomination or render it “unfit to be reissued.” In fact, because the goal of Stamp Stampede is to keep the money in circulation, Justino suggests that the government would find it “extremely difficult” to win a criminal conviction.
Practically speaking, Cohen adds, the U.S. Secret Service, which enforces federal laws about currency defacement and counterfeiting, has “much bigger fish to fry.”
Why is Stamp Stampede pushing to amend the constitution and not simply pass new campaign finance laws that can pass constitutional muster? As Cohen explains, Citizens United was built on a series of federal court rulings, including one that said money is a form of protected free speech and others that grant corporations legal “personhood.” Since corporations are legally “people” and money is a form of free speech, courts have held that corporations are free to spend unlimited sums to influence elections.
“Some people think that all we need to do is overturn Citizens United and everything will be fine. That’s not true,” Cohen adds. “You overturn Citizens United and you go back to pre-Citizens United, when money was still corrupting politics. So we need to go deeper.” To do so, he contends, requires eliminating the right of corporate personhood altogether.
But not everyone agrees with Cohen’s reasoning. James Leas is a South Burlington patent attorney, engineer and social-justice activist. Leas is known to many Vermonters for his 2003 town-meeting-day resolutions calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, as well as those proposing the impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Leas also drafted many of the town ballot items that called for the closure of Vermont Yankee when the nuclear power plant’s license expired earlier this year.
As Leas points out, hundreds of constitutional amendments have been proposed since the Bill of Rights was ratified 221 years ago but only 17 have been adopted. Pushing for one to end corporate personhood, Leas says, is “a wild goose chase” that will do nothing to get corporate cash out of elections.
Corporate personhood is “irrelevant to Citizens United,” he argues, because that decision did not address the rights of corporations. It had to do with the right of all citizens to hear from an information source, and “it didn’t matter if the source is human, animal, plant, machine or corporation.”
Leas contends that there are faster, easier and more effective ways to negate the effects of Citizens United, including passing new campaign finance laws that specifically restrict the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over the law itself — a concept already in the Constitution in Article 3 Section 2.
“Actually, it is unfortunate that the campaign against Citizens United has been derailed that way because it makes it much harder to address it when people are aiming in the wrong direction,” he adds. “End corporate personhood, and you’d still have Citizens United.”
While he acknowledges that amending the Constitution is a daunting task, Cohen disagrees with Leas that it would take too long. The 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, was first proposed in 1967 by the California Teachers’ Association. Mid-Vietnam War, the slogan was: “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” The amendment was finally ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures in 1971. Cohen believes a corporate personhood amendment could be similarly fast-tracked.
As for the effectiveness of the Stamp Stampede message itself, Cohen admits to one problem: more people reach for credit and debit cards these days over cold, hard cash.
“That’s been kind of a major problem,” he admits, “although there are still hundreds of millions of pieces of paper currency in circulation.”