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A clear case of injustice ends in victory for free speech

Advocates of free speech, artistic expression and the First Amendment breathed a collective sigh of relief last spring, when the four-year ordeal of artist and University at Buffalo professor Steven Kurtz finally came to an end.

In 2004, Kurtz became the subject of misguided suspicions from the FBI and federal prosecutors, who tried unsuccessfully to prosecute him and his artistic collaborator, Robert Ferrell of the University of Pittsburgh, on bioterrorism charges. When a grand jury refused to indict Kurtz on bioterrorism charges, the U.S. Justice Department dragged Kurtz and Ferrell through a four-year case based on spurious mail and wire fraud charges.

Ferrell, who had long been ill, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in 2007 to avoid the stress and drain of the federal case. But for Kurtz, the fight ended on April 21, 2008, when a federal judge threw out the case against him.

His hard-won victory continues to speak volumes about the importance of fighting for the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

Kurtz could not have triumphed without the work of the CAE Defense Fund, which raised $350,000 in its four years of existence. The fund, named for the Critical Art Ensemble, to which Kurtz and Ferrell belonged, was officially disbanded earlier this month. The remaining funds, $108,000, were donated to the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The outcome, said Center for Constitutional Rights Executive Director Vincent Warren in a statement, is "a victory for our country and the Constitution as much as it is for the individuals."

Warren knows whereof he speaks.

What the Bush-era Justice Department did not understand, it prosecuted. This age-old reaction to perplexing issues is favored by angry mobs and schoolchildren the world over, but we should demand better from our own government. Thanks to the efforts of Kurtz and the defense fund, we may just get it.

For all the pain and fear this dubious federal case created, the fund's final move will help protect the very rights our last fear-mongering administration sought to limit.

The importance of the Critical Art Ensemble fund's work is difficult to overstate. The Kurtz case, closely followed by the legal and artistic establishment in the United States, could have set a dangerous precedent for working artists already worried about government censorship and limitation of their freedom of expression. But because Kurtz and the CAE fund fought tooth-and-nail against the pernicious charges, they contributed immeasurably to a future in which artistic freedoms will be more difficult to assault.

The yeoman efforts of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York State Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union help, on a daily basis, to defend the rights and freedoms of all people: artists, laborers, executives, the wrongfully accused, the guilty, the rich, the poor and every other category on the American spectrum.

The fund's final official action is the ideal denouement to a story straight out of John Grisham or Scott Turow: An innocent professor accused, on the day of his wife's untimely death, of an almost inconceivable crime. A protracted legal fight, rife with accusations and confrontations, overbearing prosecutors, star defense attorneys. Star-studded protests and fundraisers with contributions from artists like Ed Ruscha, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and Chuck Close. And finally, a triumphant victory, followed by an investment in the constitutional freedoms Kurtz and his supporters had fought so hard to protect.

It's hard to imagine a more harrowing story. But then again, it's hard to imagine a happier ending.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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