FACT CHECK: MoveOn Says It’s ‘Totally Legal’ To Stamp Money With Political Messages

David Sivak | Fact Check Editor

The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org sent an email newsletter recently encouraging subscribers to participate in a campaign to rubber stamp 2 million bills with the phrase “Stamp Money Out of Politics.”

“Yes, it’s totally legal!” claimed the newsletter.

Verdict: Unsubstantiated

The Secret Service cautions that stamping bills could violate the law.

Fact Check:

MoveOn has sent multiple newsletters in support of Stamp Stampede, an organization run by the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

The organization says 3,300 volunteers have already agreed to rubber stamp “Stamp Money Out of Politics” on 1.4 million bills for the Jan. 21 anniversary of Citizens United, a 2010 Supreme Court case that ruled restrictions on political advertising by corporations and unions to be unconstitutional.

Stamp Stampede has been marking bills with political messages for years, and political enthusiasts on the right have done so occasionally too. Supporters of President Donald Trump, for example, have been stamping “Donald Trump Lives Here” next to the image of the White House on $20 bills.

There’s a law on the books that prescribes a $100 fine or jail time for “whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together” a bank note.

Vague terms like “disfigure” and “deface” have led many on the internet to question the legality of stamping as a result. “Many people assume that it’s illegal to stamp or write on paper currency, but they’re wrong!” the Stamp Stampede website assures its visitors.

But the U.S. Secret Service, the agency that has jurisdiction over the defacement of currency, warns that stamping a bill could violate the law. “Any stamping, writing or otherwise defacing a Federal Reserve Note that renders the note unfit for circulation could potentially be a violation of 18 USC § 333,” a Secret Service spokesperson told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Larry Felix, former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, says that much of the legality depends upon what kind of markings would render a bill “unfit for circulation.”

“As long as the note can be processed and sorted and does not lead to premature destruction, it should not be considered defacement,” Felix told TheDCNF.

Notes get processed by the Federal Reserve, which uses high-speed equipment to determine whether a bill is fit enough to make its way back into public circulation. The press office at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond pointed us to guidelines published by the Fed to understand how a processing center determines fitness.

Stamp Stampede argues that a bill remains fit if it’s information isn’t obscured. “So long as the stamping is done in a way that does not render the information on the bill illegible, then it remains fit for further circulation, and the law has not been violated,” reads a legal opinion posted on the organization’s website.

But the Fed guidelines detail a much stricter fitness standard.

A bill is unfit and removed from circulation if it has “excessive graffiti,” defined as visible markings 40 square millimeters – about 1.5 inches – or larger. The markings must be 10 percent darker than the surrounding area.

Depending on the size of the stamp and the imprint it leaves behind, a stamp could easily render a bill unfit for circulation.

Stamp Stampede argues that even if stamping bills were considered defacement, the organization would not face prosecution because the law requires an “intent to render such bank bill … unfit to be reissued.”

“Because we want stamped money to stay in circulation and we’re stamping to express our opinions about a political issue, not to make a profit, we’re good to go,” reads the Stamp Stampede website.

The campaign manager for Stamp Stampede pointed TheDCNF to “Where’s George?” as an example of a money-stamping campaign that has operated for years without issue from the Secret Service. The website has allowed hobbyists to stamp and track millions of bills globally.

The Secret Service did contact “Where’s George?” with concerns in 2000, but they had more to do with the fact that the website owner was making a profit. He sold stamps to hobbyists and ran advertising on his website, which runs counter to a separate federal statute that prohibits advertising on currency.

The website has stopped selling rubber stamps.

The Seattle Times asked the Secret Service about the seriousness of hobbyists stamping bills back in 2004. “Quite frankly, we wouldn’t spend too much looking into this,” said a Secret Service representative for the Seattle field office at the time.

But the amount of attention stamping campaigns receive seems to depend upon the Secret Service field office.

“We see it as a violation of the law,” Charles Green, who ran the Kansas City Secret Service field office, told The Kansas City Star in 2016 after bills stamped by Stamp Stampede began to circulate in the state.

The national press office advises the public to alert authorities about any possible violations.

“If members of the public are aware of any intentional defacing of Federal Reserve Notes by any person or business, they are encouraged to contact their local U.S. Secret Service office,” a Secret Service spokesperson told TheDCNF.

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David Sivak

Fact Check Editor
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