The Enterprise Precedent: Star Trek on Human Rights

Star Trek’s impact on our culture as an allegory of what it means to be human cannot be understated.

The Star Trek The Next Generation episode The Measure of the Man is perhaps one of the best Trek stories of defining what it is to be alive and free.

Another that is easily overlooked is the Star Trek Voyager episode Author, Author, where the holographic Doctor’s holobook highlights the plight of Mark 1 Emergency Medical Holographs, who are being used for mining work.

The legal twist to the story is the Doctor is not found to be a legal person at the end, but did have control over his creative work.

A Story on Rights

The Measure of a Man focuses on Lt. Commander Data and the attempt by Commander Bruce Maddox to take Data apart to learn how Data worked.

Maddox’s goal was simple: there are many dangerous jobs in space travel. Every star ship having a Data to do the dangerous work would make the universe a safer place for real living lifeforms.

Adding insult to injury, Maddox only referred to Data as “it.” Moreover, Maddox shows no respect for Data, with entering Data’s quarters without permission. Further endearing himself to no one, Maddox proclaimed he was “Sick to death to hear of rights” when Captain Picard stood up for Data’s rights and personal freedom.

It is no surprise Data says “No” to Maddox’s “research,” because Maddox’s research lacked specifics and the probability of Data surviving it.

Since Maddox spent a fair amount of timing plotting to experiment on Data, he was prepared with transfer orders for Data.

Not wanting to be taken apart by someone who did not know what he was doing, Data decides to resign from Starfleet.

Small problem: there is the legal argument Data is a machine, thus Starfleet property, and could not simply resign.

Going Legal Like No Had Before

Captain Picard goes to the local JAG officer, Captain Phillipa Louvois for help in fighting the transfer order (it is interesting to note that a lawyer was named after François Michel Le Tellier Louvois, the minister of war for King Louis XIV).

The two Captains have a less then stellar history, as Louvois prosecuted the court martial against Captain Picard for the loss of the USS Stargazer.

To make this complicated, Louvois and Picard apparently had a romantic relationship (that possibly overlapped with the court martial).

This could be problematic because 1) One would think a lawyer would know better then to prosecute someone the attorney had a relationship with (apparently there are no ethical rules on conflict of interests in the 24th Century) and 2) If you zealously try to destroy someone’s career, they generally don’t want to date you afterwards.

There is no Hallmark Card or Holodeck Program, for “I am sorry I tried destroying your life without mercy. It was purely professional. Please take me back.”

The Taylor Swift song “We are never getting back together” would be very fitting in such situations.

And yet, Picard goes to Louvois for help, because she is the only one who can help him.

The O’Connor Effect

With the complex romantic subplot aside, Star Trek’s treatment of women in the practice of law is very admirable. The 1967 Original Series episode Court Martial depicted Lt. Areel Shaw as a strong prosecutor who argued her case against Captain Kirk with force and courtroom command. That was filmed at a time when only three percent of attorneys in the United States were women.

In The Measure of A Man, Phillipa Louvois is of equal rank as Picard, and following the tradition of Lt. Areel Shaw, Louvois prosecuted her former boyfriend. Moreover, Louvois is the officer-in-charge of the JAG department of her sector.

Furthermore, Louvois does not act as the prosecutor in the case, but the Judge (one could argue the local Admiral technically should have heard the case, but the story is better showcasing the advancement of women in the practice of law with Louvois as the judge).

The Measure of A Man aired in 1989. In the 22 years that followed Court Martial, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first women Supreme Court Justice, plus an increase of women going to law school and entering the practice of law. While there are many significant challenges for women attorneys today, The Measure of a Man continued the tradition of showing strong women in the practice of law as a very important subtext.

Who Has Rights?

Captain Picard was given the duty of defending Lt. Commander Data from being a piece of property. Commander Riker was given one of the worst duties ever with having to prosecute a case that his friend essentially did not have any rights as a living being. If Riker had not taken the case, Louvois would have summarily ruled for Maddox.

Once again, Star Trek made a very pointed reminder of egregious wrongs in the past. The argument Riker had to make was in a United States Supreme Court decision written by Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1857. The 200 page opinion is a nightmarish rejection of the Declaration of Independence:

The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as salves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution.

Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 403 (U.S. 1857)

The horror of the Dred Scott opinion only becomes more terrifying with each page. Chief Justice Taney stated the following on the founding of the United States:

It then proceeds to say: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appeared, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.

Yet the men who framed this declaration were great men — high in literary acquirements — high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery. They spoke and acted according to the then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, no one misunderstood them. The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection.

Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 410 (U.S. 1857)

A Supreme Court opinion holding the United States was a country of slave owners, and no State or the Federal Government could eliminate slavery in the name of “property” should make every American stand up and say “No.”

And many Americans did more then simply say “No” that between 1857 to 1865.

It is no question that this abomination of a Supreme Court opinion helped enable the new Republican Party to elect Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860. Historically speaking, there was no turning back from the Civil War after Dred Scott.

Better Angels of Our Nature

Commander Riker’s arguments that Data lacked rights was extremely damaging (It is worth noting the procedures for swearing in a witness are the same as Court Martial).

It takes a reflective Picard visiting with Guinan to realize what was really at stake: Maddox wanted disposable people, whose welfare you did not have to consider.

Captain Picard’s return to the courtroom was a two step process of a direct examination of Data and examining Maddox as a hostile witness.

The issue of whether Data had rights turned on whether he was sentient. Maddox testified that to be sentient one had to have 1) Intelligence; 2) self-awareness; and 3) consciousness.

Maddox’s examination showed the Data possessed the first and second requirements for sentience.The third was not answered verbally, but only an uncomfortable stare by Commander Maddox.

Picard’s questions turned into a closing argument, focusing in on Maddox’s goal to construct more “Datas.” The final rhetorical question is if thousands of Datas are constructed, isn’t that a race?

In the end, the trial was not about “property,” but of  servitude and slavery.

Captain Louvois recognized the long term impact of the issue (or the fear of being in the historical company of Roger Taney), found for Data.

Maddox himself is also redeemed, realizing that Data had the right to determine his own fate. Since Maddox only saw Data as a machine, he originally did not see the bigger moral issue at stake. Maddox changed his position and canceled Data’s transfer orders.

Captain Picard also made a significant showing of forgiveness to Captain Louvois with an invitation to dinner after the trial.

A Note on Freedom

American history is sadly full of examples where freedom has been cruelly suppressed. In 1802, Postmaster General Gideon Granger wrote a confidential letter to Senator James Jackson (Georgia), chairman of the Committee on the Posts. Granger argued against allowing African Americans to become post riders delivering the mail, because it would require the riders knew how to read and interact with people. Granger stated the “danger” as follows:

They will learn that a man’s rights do not depend on his color.

Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War, pp 12-13, The Noonday Press, 1992.

American history also has the brilliant examples of what makes the United States a shining city on a hill, because “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” is not empty rhetoric. The silent monuments at Gettysburg and Pointe Du Hoc say more then any speech can on what Americans have done for freedom.

And those ideals of freedom have been very strongly presented in Star Trek.

Star Trek has for 46 years told stories of racial and gender equality. The stories translate the suppression of “artificial life rights” as an allegory for human rights. More importantly, Star Trek is an optimistic vision of how the world could be, and not how the world was in the past.


  1. It was Chief Justice Taney who, after delivering the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, famously said, “Tonight, I have saved the Union from Civil War.” Even more chilling than the Dred Scott decision and the Granger letter are the words contained in Article 1, section 2, paragraph 3 of the Constitution:

    “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

    Here, we have a direct statement concerning who should be counted in the census and how those people should be used to apportion the Representatives among the various states in which only 3/5ths of slaves shall be added to a state’s population because they are, through compromise, neither livestock nor people. They are, instead, considered partial people by our very founders who, I will admit, needed the slave holding states to ratify the Constitution. It is interesting that in this debate, the non-slave holding states argued for the exclusion of slaves on the basis that they were property and the slave holding states argued for their inclusion because they were obviously people.

  2. I’m a Star Trek fan & not a lawyer but I found The Measure of the Man weak legally. The Star Trek universe must have had near sentient A.I. for many years. Heck, the Original Series had examples, iirc.

    Where was the reference to precedent? What was the controlling law? How strong are Starfleet’s property rights on Data? (He was just ‘salvage’ of unknown provenance, iirc) Words have legal meanings – how does ‘testimony’ come from a machine? By what magic did a non-person get into Starfleet’s personnel system so Commander Maddox could give Commander Data legal orders in the first place? If Data was commissioned before Maddox then military protocol is being broken by giving a junior authority over a senior officer.

    Slavery allegories have their place but they are trivial compared to the legal issues raised by Pygmalion allegories, in my opinion.