Issue 94, Summer 2004

Off With His Head?

Item 1: The FBI recently confiscated books, computers and lab equipment from the home of Steven Kurtz, an art professor at the State University of NY at Buffalo and member of the internationally recognized art collective, Critical Arts Ensemble. CAE’s work explores the politics of biotechnology, and the material found in Kurtz’s home was part of its latest project, Free Range Grains. Designed to test food products for possible genetic modification, Free Range Grains was scheduled to be shown at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this summer. Instead, a sign describing the FBI action occupies its designated space.Kurtz came under suspicion after he called for emergency medical attention for his wife, who had apparently died in her sleep. Police who responded to the call saw lab equipment and petri dishes and alerted the FBI. The Erie County Health Department established that the substances and equipment were relatively harmless and non-threatening; nonetheless, Kurtz became the object of a federal grand jury investigation. Members of CAE and other academics were subpoenaed, but most invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. Kurtz has been indicted, not for terrorism, but on charges of mail and wire fraud.Item 2: Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia studying computer science at the University of Idaho, was acquitted of charges of “fostering terrorism” but will still be deported. He was imprisoned in February 2003 on charges that he provided “advice and assistance to terrorist groups,” in violation of the USA Patriot Act, by managing two Web sites allegedly containing links to Hamas. Al-Hussayen admittedly opposes U.S. policies in the mid-east, but denied the terrorism charges, which carry a maximum 45-year sentence. A jury acquitted him on the terrorism charges but deadlocked on lesser unrelated charges. Al-Hussayen accepted deportation in exchange for the government dropping the remaining charges.

Item 3: The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force subpoenaed Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in February to obtain records of the university chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, after the chapter sponsored an antiwar conference, Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home! Expressions of widespread outrage forced the withdrawal of the subpoenas. (Censorship News 93). The Guild has requested Congressional hearings into FBI investigations of campus political activities.

Item 4: For two summers in a row, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill weathered criticism of its reading assignments for incoming students. First, UNC faculty chose Approaching the Qur’an, and the following year it selected Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Both elicited protest—albeit for different reasons—and embroiled the University in controversy, including a law suit, in which UNC ultimately prevailed. This year’s summer reading assignment is David Lipsky’s Absolutely American, which follows cadets at West Point—undoubtedly an engaging book, but query why it was selected. Did UNC decide to play it safe? Are other schools doing so?