NYCLU Raises Questions Over Federal Investigation of a Buffalo Artist

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
June 21, 2004 12:00 am

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BUFFALO — In a letter sent last week to U.S. Attorney Michael Battle, the New York Civil Liberties Union questioned the propriety of a grand jury investigation into the work of Buffalo artist Steven Kurtz.

“It doesn’t appear that this investigation satisfies the FBI standards that the facts and circumstances of the case must reasonably indicate that a crime has been committed,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU.

Kurtz, a University of Buffalo professor and member of the Critical Art Ensemble, was placed under federal investigation after his work with transgenic E. coli was seen by officials who were called to his home in early May following the death of Kurtz’s wife, apparently of natural causes.

According to news reports, Buffalo police contacted the FBI when they saw what they considered suspicious material in Kurtz’s home. A notice to evacuate the house was filed by the health department; following two days of investigation, the Erie County Health Department said the home was not considered a public health threat.

Subsequent to that declaration, a grand jury had been convened to investigate the matter further. The NYCLU learned that a federal statute on bio-terrorism might have been invoked to probe further into Kurtz’s possession of large quantities of hazardous material, although public accounts indicate transgenic E. coli was completely harmless. It appears that Kurtz used the non-toxic material for research or artistic purposes, which are well within the “safe harbor” provision of the statute.

In addition, the NYCLU said that if the investigation was based on criticisms of the government espoused by Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble, then officials may have violated their free speech rights.

“Unless the U.S. Attorney is in possession of facts very different from what has been publicly reported, we call on his office to discontinue its investigation of Professor Kurtz,” said Lieberman.

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