Attack on Academic Freedom: is the persecution of Dominguez really about the TBTool?

The following letter is from the UCSD Faculty Coalition to Senior Vice-Chancellor Acadamic Affairs Paul Drake, to which you can refer for details. I will summarize some key information from the letter in bullets, with contextual information noted:

  • As the letter makes clear, professor Dominguez is being charged based on his celebrated artistic practice.
  • The charges stem from a Virtual Sit-in against www.ucop.edu on March 4th, a day of protest against fee increases at the University of California.
  • Dominguez’s tenure at UCSD is threatened, and the administration (Drake’s office) has threatened criminal charges based on a prima facie misrepresentation that the Virtual Sit-in was a botnet. (The former being legal, the latter being criminal.)
  • The nature of Dominguez’s art practice is known to Drake’s office. In fact, the AVCSS received and approved a promotion file in 2009 that describes the nature of the research. Dominguez was granted tenure based on that file.
  • Dominguez has held virtual Sit-ins against UCOP in the past, with no repercussions. This is highly indicative that the current actions against Dominguez are not motivated by the Virtual Sit-in, but possibly by other research being carried out by Dominguez and his colleagues. Note: I work with Ricardo on the Transborder Immigrant Tool Project – which is in fact one project supported by the UCSD supported walkingtools.net project. The research team also includes Amy Carrol and Micha Cardenas.
  • After a spate of recent hate-crimes on campus, including the hanging of a noose in the Geisel Library at UCSD, no criminal charges were brought.
  • The B.A.N.G. lab website was temporarily shut down on March 4th for exercising free speech, yet the Koala (a publication and website at UCSD with a history of racist provocations) is deemed by Chancellor Fox to be protected free speech.

Just to add a little more information for the concerned public, a UCSD auditors’ investigation of the Transborder Immigrant Tool project began well before the March 4th events, triggered by a complaint that remains confidential. Since that time, we have been informed by the auditors that the investigation has been expanded due to a letter from US Congress members Duncan Hunter, Brian Bilbray, and Darrell Issa. The possibility that the persecution of professor Dominguez is related to TBT or other research is therefore highly plausible.

I also want to make it very clear, I was involved in the March 4th virtual sit-in as a participant. Yet no administrative charges have been brought forth against me, and I have not been visited by detectives.

Brett Stalbaum
Lecturer with Security of Employment
Department of Visual Arts
University of California San Diego

Letter follows:

April 5, 2010

Professor Paul Drake, Senior Vice-Chancellor Acadamic Affairs
UC San Diego
9500 Gilman Dr.
La Jolla
CA 0065

Dear SVCAA Drake:

The UCSD Faculty Coalition has learned that one of its members, Ricardo Dominguez (Associate Professor, Visual Arts Department), is being investigated for an artistic project (“Virtual Sit-In on University of California Office of the President”) he developed on March 4, 2010 in conjunction with the recent student protests on campus. Your office has informed Professor Dominguez that you are attempting to determine the legal grounds necessary to file criminal charges against him. These charges, if successful, could lead to the revocation of his tenure at UCSD or other disciplinary procedures through the Committee on Privilege and Tenure. Two detectives from the UCSD Police Department (Officers Michael Britton and Garrett Williams) have since interviewed Professor Dominguez (on March 30, 2010) and made it clear that they were concerned with whether or not he had violated any city, county, state or federal laws, with the goal of turning their findings over to the San Diego City Attorney’s office or the California state Attorney General.

We hereby inform you that the Faculty Coalition views these developments with great alarm and is prepared to oppose them in the strongest possible terms. We are particularly concerned because of the implied attempt to criminalize an artistic practice, “Electronic Civil Disobedience” or ECD, which is central to Professor Dominguez’s role as a researcher in Visual Arts at UCSD. This attempt is evident in the initial documentation of the complaint, which erroneously claims that the March 4 project involved the use of “botnet” code and “zombie” computers (see e-mail from Elazar Harel, March 5, 2010, “Denial of Service Attack Against UCOP Website”). This misunderstanding is unfortunate, as the distinction between ECD and a “classic Denial of Service attack” (e-mail from Paul Weiss to David Ernst and Nathan Brostrom, March 4, 2010), is absolutely central to Professor Dominguez’s work, and was discussed in some detail in the referee letters for his tenure promotion file (approved by your office in 2009). As you note in your notification letter of March 30, 2009, “Professor Dominguez . . . has been a defining figure in the migration of performance art from physical space to virtual space. Professor Dominguez’s work, first with Critical Art Ensemble and then with Electronic Disturbance Theater, has been highly cited, and he has been invited to lecture on the work across a host of important international venues . . . The esteemed status of Professor Dominguez’s field-defining work has been duly noted by the external referees, who include major international intellectuals working in performance art, new media and globalization”.

The central importance of ECD, and a related practice, “Electronic Disturbance Theater,” to Professor Dominguez’s research is referenced repeatedly in those same referee letters. Thus, Stephen Duncombe of New York University notes that Professor Dominguez “is one of the seminal figures in the cross-over world of activism and art . . . He continually pushes the boundaries of the field, and in the process redefines it . . . His Electronic Civil Disobedience enthralled practitioners and scholars of contemporary social movements by theorizing that one could move the terrain of an age-old political tactic to the internet.” Michael Hardt, of Duke University, argues that Professor Dominguez’s work with Electronic Disturbance Theater has been “widely influential in academic fields such as critical theory and performance studies . . . He has essentially invented a form of political activism and civil disobedience that combines art performance and new technologies.” Finally, Rita Raley of UC Santa Barbara clearly states that “the bulk of Dominguez’s work falls under the category of art-activism . . . it is not for nothing that this art practice is also known as ‘Electronic Civil Disobedience’ . . . There are important differences between EDT and what we might call basic distributed denial-of-service attacks . . . First, EDT by no means aims simply to halt server traffic. An important component of any EDT performance . . . involves an error message that itself is part of the performance. Specifically, the applet will request files with names such as ‘Justice,’ ‘Freedom,’ and ‘Human Rights’ from targeted websites; the error message then in effect reads, ‘Justice Not Found’. As a performative exercise EDT has three parts: Act 1 is the announcement of the action; Act II is the action itself; and Act III is the follow up discussion. The discussion is the site for sophisticated theoretical intervention.”

“Classic” denial of service attacks use the computers of unknowing individuals as the conduits or vehicles for increased traffic to a given URL, through a program surreptitiously placed on these computers via the internet. The goal is to mask or obscure the identity of the actual perpetrators. As Professor Raley emphasizes, ECD or EDT are defined precisely by their transparency, and by the open acknowledgement of responsibility. Professor Dominguez’s March 4 action was widely publicized ahead of time as a form of conscious, public speech, with the intention of demonstrating the breadth of support for UC-wide protests against the dismantling of public education in the state of California. Professor Brett Stallbaum, one of Professor Dominguez’s collaborators and a fellow developer of ECD, further clarifies the distinction:

A botnet runs autonomously and automatically, and operates under remote direction. The owners/users of zombie computers controlled by a botnet are generally not aware that their computer is performing any action that could have an effect on a third party or targeted website. Neither are owners/users typically even aware that their computer’s security has been compromised, nor that it is under the direct and ongoing control of a third party. By contrast, in a Virtual Sit-in, there is no botnet controlling anything . . . in a Virtual Sit-in the owners/users are always aware that their computers are having an effect on a third party machine or website. This is a very important difference that goes directly to the issue of legality and free speech . . . as organizers of hundreds of past EDT related protests Ricardo (and I) have always taken full and complete public credit for organizing the protests. Instead of maintaining the anonymity desired by criminals, we maintain the public face of citizens freely expressing ourselves as artists.

This key distinction, and the broad academic recognition of ECD as a form of contemporary artistic practice, is elided in the language of the investigation against Professor Dominguez launched by UCSD. In the absence of any more compelling explanation for this sudden willingness to criminalize a research-based artistic practice that the university, only a year ago, recognized as deserving of tenure, one can only assume that UCSD has been placed under some form of external political pressure. Whether this pressure is coming from the UC Office of the President or some other source it represents a disturbing breach of the university’s obligation to maintain a climate of free creative and academic inquiry.

The Faculty Coalition is deeply concerned about the chilling effect that will result from this investigation. We view the attempt to prosecute Professor Dominguez on criminal grounds as a serious assault on the principles of academic freedom and the right to protest. In our view, a major goal of the investigation is to intimidate Professor Dominguez and dissuade him from examining activities for which the university has hitherto routinely rewarded him. All that appears to have changed is that in the course of the student protests, UCSD became the object of Professor Dominguez’ acclaimed work. Thus, it is the object of his criticism, and not the nature of his work, that appears to have set off the criminal investigation. In short, Professor Dominguez is being muzzled for purely institutional reasons and his rights as both scholar and citizen are under attack. Therefore, the Faculty Coalition also views the on-going criminal investigation as an attempt to intimidate and silence all other faculty, staff and students who exposed and mobilized against racism on the campus and eventually singled out the administration as a major pillar of the “hostile campus climate” that has taken root at UCSD. The attack on Professor Dominguez is therefore a shot across our collective bow, an attempt to restrict both academic freedom and the right to dissent against the University.
The energetic investigation of Professor Dominguez contrasts starkly with the university’s tepid response to the various outrages perpetrated by students, including the criminal destruction of University property and the serial commission of hate crimes on campus. To date, no charges of any kind have been brought against a small number of known perpetrators who repeatedly violated the civil rights of many students, staff and faculty and created an inhospitable climate that almost brought the campus to a standstill. The contrast between the treatment of Professor Dominguez and the Koala is particularly galling and offensive. You will recall that Chancellor Fox refused to act against the Koala for fear of infringing on the newspaper’s “freedom of speech”. In light of this response, the criminal investigation of Professor Dominguez is bizarre, and an egregious insult to the scholarly community at UCSD.

It should be noted that over past two to three months Professor Dominguez and his collaborators have received several death threats in response to their research. Comments such as “Hopefully, you traitors will be shot in the back of your heads when you least expect it” (and much worse) have been posted directly on the bang.lab website and also mailed to Professor Grant Kester, Chair of the Visual Arts Department. At a time of increasingly violent rhetoric from political extremists in this country, including harassment and threats directed at public officials who hold alternate political views, it is deeply troubling that our administration is not mounting a more robust defense of the mission of the university as a site of autonomous, critical, reflection. While the threats today are directed at ECD, tomorrow they may well be aimed at evolutionary biology or genomic research.

We call upon the UCSD administration to discontinue the unwarranted attack it has initiated against Professor Dominguez and on the very principles of free inquiry on which the university system is based.

Sincerely,

The UCSD Faculty Coalition

Cc:
- Stephanie Burke (Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Audit and Management Advisory Services)
- Professor Harold Pashler (Chair, Committee on Academic Freedom)
- Professor Ricardo Dominguez (Associate Professor, Visual Arts Department)
- Professor Grant Kester, (Chair, Department of Visual Arts)