I’m about a week into my vacation in the alpha quadrant when I’m suddenly catching myself writing for fun. It’s something I can’t believe is happening, considering I avoided it all throughout my career as just a supplement to the usual paperwork I have to do. I think I managed to convince myself by saying that maybe one day I’ll get published in the Andorian Law Review Journal but I’ll already have something pre-written to save me the time and effort of having to suffer the unfulfilling stress of academic publishing.
I’ve been encountering a lot of people I’m fairly unfamiliar with as of late, with cultures possessing values drastically different from Earth. And as someone who’s only left Earth for the first time a couple years ago, having spent most of my life in the arid desert around the Aral Sea, it’s a pretty significant culture shock. And even though I pretended to a lot of people, especially to myself, that I’m just going to relax and enjoy the vacation, I’m stuck thinking about a wider application of a problem that isn’t so obvious on Earth. Personally, I blame lawyers. We should just get rid of all of them.
The real question of the hour, the thing that everyone wants answered but we can never get to a really satisfying conclusion for everyone: What is liberty? I don’t mean in the abstract sense of philosophers bouncing ideas off each other or some random idiot on the street screaming about his or her rights, but the tangible policy question that the courts are eventually forced to address, albeit with hesitation. The Federation Charter grants citizens of the UFP a series of rights. Some of them are well-defined, like the right to an attorney. If there’s no attorney, there’s clearly a problem. Plain and simple. The right to free expression is a little more complicated, but it’s clear enough that we know if someone’s expressing general political opinions about something - particularly negative opinions of the ruling party - that it’s respected as their right to say it even if people disagree with it. But what about the more vague rights, like liberty? We have a right to liberty guaranteed to us, but what the hell does that actually mean?
Like anything in law, the judicial opinion is split in two camps - the progressive and regressive. We’ll start with the latter first because it’s easier. The regressive, or conservative, opinion on liberty is straightforward and simple - it means not being incarcerated or otherwise imprisoned without due process. The guaranteed right to liberty is just that, that if the government wants to put you in a cell and throw away the key, they at least have to cater to the judicial system to do so first. The viewpoint is clear and simple, although it does leave a lot to be desired when it comes to aspirational beliefs.
Meanwhile, the progressive camp often has the opposite problem. It’s one of ignorance. I don’t mean that in the insulting or condescending way, I mean we literally don’t know what it means. Liberty isn’t a static right that remains the same all throughout history. It’s not ingrained in nature or some natural right like the regressive would assert. Instead, it’s - as a progressive jurist would argue - the belief made manifest by attempt to achieve rights and freedoms that we could not have possibly even dreamed of when we claimed such a right to liberty, yet today we would view a society without such liberties as backwards or authoritarian.
If that sounds a lot like vague nonsense, that’s because it is. But it also makes sense in a way. The authors of the Federation Charter probably never considered the Exocomp Question (and larger A.I. Rights) when drafting the document, but they believed that the right of liberty should be conferred onto Federation citizens - at the time biological ones. Yet the progressive would argue that the aspiration for liberty is not set in stone as a natural right akin to the regressive outlook of freedom from incarceration, but new and evolving views on what rights and freedoms we should have that the state has no right to even consider whether we should have or not.
Again, this is not some musing of academics. The collective views of lawyers matter, because lawyers and judges set these policies through the court systems and the ever-evolving interpretation of the Charter. What some professor of philosophy thinks about Exocomps is interesting, but ultimately harmless. What the courts rule and enforce via court order that’s punishable by imprisonment for ignoring very much affects the lives of every person in the Federation.
I’m about eight paragraphs in and the question right about now is probably “Sonya, what does this have to do with your vacation?” I’m getting there, I promise. Hang in there, grab a milkshake, eat some nachos. We know that the progressive jurist’s interpretation is vague and difficult to parse, although much broader and applicable than the regressive. Which now goes to the finer details. Of our aspirations for liberty, what sort of rights and freedoms are afforded by the Charter? And this goes to the crux of why I ultimately decided to muse on this.
I’m privileged to have a cushy and safe job at Deep Space Thirteen where I spend my days telling people that they’re wrong and forcing them to jump through extra paperwork. I also get the social credit of being in Starfleet and all of the prestige that affords without taking on most of the liability - like death or otherwise getting shot at or having to shoot people. In fact, it’s probably safer for everyone including myself if I never go near a phaser. I took one marksmanship test and I was as likely to accidentally shoot the instructor as I was the targets.
The atmosphere of Deep Space Thirteen also affects the groupthink dynamic, though. The majority of the people I interact with on a daily basis, either professionally or personally, are Starfleet officers. That’s no indictment, but there is a certain set of beliefs that’s fairly common among them, especially the academy graduates that went through military-esque indoctrination and inculcation programs and now command the awesome power of the state against those it deems its enemies. So what liberty means is in a fairly narrow box and skews in one direction, particularly on matters like whether saluting the flag should be compulsory or whether all high school graduates should have to spend two years in mandatory Starfleet service as enlisted conscripts. Again, neither of these concepts are violations of the regressive definition of liberty - nobody’s going to jail here. So it’s left to the progressive interpretation of liberty on whether one has the right to refuse such things without reprisal.
Over the course of a week, I’ve spent my vacation on Bajor and Deep Space Nine. Here the demographics are considerably different. Of all the people I’ve met, I think I’ve only encountered one Starfleet officer and she’s just running logistics shipments to and from places - really down to Earth and less career-hungry like the usual people I’ve met. Everyone else is just some person, and most of my conversations have been with Nishalla, someone I met on Risa last year and ran into while I was trying to get a flight to the planet. Asides from the fact that she’s a huge softie once you get passed her facade of an exterior and her inclinations towards criminality, I’ve come to two conclusions about her. First, her view on liberty is probably outside the box of most people I interact with at Deep Space Thirteen. And that’s important, because as I’ve noted earlier, to a progressive jurist the concept of liberty is in a sense a final frontier of exploration in the law. The progressive judge doesn’t know what the ceiling is. And someone like Nishalla might have fundamentally different views on what’s important to her to live a fulfilling and happy life than a Starfleet officer. Or someone living on Earth in the middle of a desert and never leaving, someone like me only two years ago.
Second, that she would make for a terrible Starfleet officer. That sounds like an insult, and some people might be wondering why I’m being so ‘harsh’. But the truth is, there’s a certain type of mold that’s expected of someone in Starfleet. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing in reality. But we view it in a negative light because of societal expectations - Starfleet officers are role models, and so we should try to be like them and emulate our role models. If we’re not good at that, then we’ve failed at being good citizens to exemplify the traits of a good citizen. I’ll even double down and say that -I- am a terrible Starfleet officer. I show zero discipline or respect for authority most of the time, and I couldn’t care less what an admiral’s legal opinion is on something. Honestly I relate to her a lot. She’s also got no care for authority and does what she likes, in the literal sense - though probably in the common parlance too. I probably would’ve done something similar if I wasn’t born on Earth and didn’t get anxiety when I wasn’t pursuing my career as though it’s some kind of status symbol or sense of accomplishment - something she’s also called me out on at least once (and she’s onto something even if I didn’t let her take notice of it).
So this sort of demographical diversity is both important to consider and severely lacking. It’s important because the Federation is a big place and the high court’s rulings affect everyone, everywhere. But it’s also found wanting, because much of the institutionalized self-policing profession comes from people who have had cushy lives on the capital planet, not really having to worry or think about the people out on the frontier of the Alpha Quadrant except in the academic and institutional mindset of “the other citizens of the Federation”. Professionals like me. There’s a reason why I decided to come here instead of Risa. Even though the beaches are so much better on Risa.
I’ll argue against a common argumentative trend I’ve seen from my colleagues in the legal profession, both from those that subscribe to the regressive view and the progressive. There’s an idea that we shouldn’t argue about what liberty ‘is’, the only important question is the balance between liberty and order. Where we should end up on that sliding scale. That’s ultimately a very important question, one where the answer changes every day and probably always will. But if we don’t at least try to answer the original question, then we won’t have anything to measure.
Again, to the regressive jurist, the finite definite of liberty is not being in prison. The progressive jurist sees the frontier of liberty but admits that it hasn’t been mapped yet. We have to acknowledge that it is a package of many different rights, some we have no idea exist until it’s time to open the box, and I get the feeling Nisha would feel her liberties deprived at having to salute a flag as much as she would being in prison. In fact, I think she’d hate it more. She even proposed getting arrested to say hi to me. If this idea is to get any evolution beyond where it is right now, we have to think about what liberty means to different people. And how that idea can be expanded to new frontiers we haven’t even been able to comprehend before (looking at you ExoComps). Because it can’t just be that the only liberty we have is the freedom from incarceration. Isn’t there something better than that after all this time? Surely there has to be.
OOC I had Niazov go to DS9 for a couple weeks and decided to have her write a reflection on the trip so far, in the framework of her thoughts on Substantive Due Process - specifically the Liberty Clause. It’s something I’m experimenting with, more to get my self-esteem w/ legal writing up in my professional life. If you have any questions or comments or other feedback, feel free to hit me up. I’d love to listen to your thoughts on this. Also a big thanks to Lauren and their alt, Nishalla, for being a big influence on this.
I hope this made sense and was an interesting read!