Free at Last... Sort Of.

Critical Art Ensemble co-founder Dr. Steven Kurtz has been cleared of all charges in what is widely acknowledged as a bogus mail fraud case, and the federal government has said that they do not plan to appeal the judge's decree that the case was without merit. The CAE is a tactical media group whose highly-acclaimed, internationally-exhibited art and activist academic writings have been explicitly critical of threats to civil liberty, such as those posed in the case against Kurtz and his colleague, Professor Robert Ferrell. Dr. Ferrell and Dr. Kurtz were accused for an activity common in the field of scientific research: mailing each other materials in the spirit of collaboration and information-sharing. The U.S. government originally charged Kurtz with bioterrorism, after local officials discovered biological artwork in his home while responding to an emergency call regarding the tragic death of his wife. When this tack failed, they tried to save face by prosecuting both Kurtz and Ferrell for mail fraud. The allegation was that this use of the mail violated the terms of sale of the innocuous bacteria exchanged between the two parties. Under the Patriot Act, being found guilty of this crime could carry a sentence of up to twenty years in prison, rather than the five that used to threaten gangsters, petty criminals, and the long list of activists the government has previously tried to silence. At a MoMA screening of Lynn Hershman's film Strange Culture, which centered on Kurtz's case, the artist said that he was fairly certain that this was the first instance in which an individual was charged with fraud without another party actually claiming to have been defrauded. Others have previously likened the case to an act of making a federal case out of [allegedly] breaking the warranty on a home appliance. After four years, the investigations, allegations, property seizure and destruction, and civil liberty intrusions to which Kurtz has been subject have finally come to a rest. However, the case is far from over. It will continue to have haunting repercussions for anyone invested in the right to free speech. In a press release announcing the clearing of these charges, Kurtz said, "I don't have a statement, but I do have questions. As an innocent man, where do I go to get back the four years the Department of Justice stole from me? As a taxpayer, where do I go to get back the millions of dollars the FBI and Justice Department wasted persecuting me? And as a citizen, what must I do to have a Justice Department free of partisan corruption so profound it has turned on those it is sworn to protect?" During the entire four-year nightmare, many among the vast international network supporting Kurtz's case noted that he was a model of strength and courage. We should not so much congratulate him on being recognized as innocent, but thank him for continuing to fight the good fight with grace and conviction. - Marisa Olson

Image: Banner from Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund's online campaign