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Resource of the Month: Is the Truth Out There?

Is the Truth Out There? by Jonathan Watson

A few years ago, while sitting outside with my mother, we noticed a fluorescent orb in the dusky sky. When we finally realized that the orange light was not an airplane because of the speed, it ceased moving and then quickly shot up and vanished. While this event did not turn us into Mulder and Scully, it did at least make us ponder cosmology’s mysteries.

But what if we wholeheartedly believed that it was an unidentified flying object (UFO)? With July’s promise of barbeques and Fourth of July fireworks, you may be surprised to learn that World UFO Day is celebrated on July 2nd. The day commemorates the supposed UFO crash that occurred in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. World UFO Day aims to raise awareness of the existence of UFOs and to encourage all governments to declassify any related files.

Even before Roswell, fictional works about UFOs had already captivated audiences. It is said that people actually panicked in 1938 while listening to Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” (based on H.G. Wells’ 1897 work). When I was a child in the late 1980s, I remember being awestruck whenever I watched the UFO abduction episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries”. Even today, UFOs feature in television shows like “Project Blue Book”.

Why the continuous interest in the topic? In Christine D. Corcos’ 2009 article “Visits to a Small Planet: Rights Talk in Some Science Fiction Film and Television Series from the 1950s to the 1990s” (39 Stetson L. Rev. 183), she theorized that “the alien-invasion narrative [served] as a proxy for whatever social, legal, economic, or other threat the culture may fear the most at the time”. Comparatively, in his 1996 article “Illegal Aliens: Extraterrestrials and White Fear” (48 Fla. L. Rev. 397), Kenneth B. Nunn noted that there were similarities “between the representation of aliens in popular culture and European involvement in the slave trade” and thus such narratives conjured panic.

With regard to law, the most prominent UFO court case is associated with the Cash-Landrum Incident that occurred in 1980. A Texas family claimed to have encountered a UFO and witnessed it being chased by military helicopters. Following the event, the family members developed health ailments and they eventually filed a lawsuit against the federal government for $20 million in the Southern District of Texas. The case was later dismissed by the U.S. District Court in 1986.

Upon exploring Solano County Law Library’s databases, I found that there were secondary sources that wrestled with the concept (rather than the existence) of UFOs. Barton Beebe’s 1999 article “Law’s Empire and the Final Frontier: Legalizing the Future in the Earlyorpus Juris Spatialis” (108 Yale L.J. 1737) is entirely steeped in conjecture, as he envisioned a future in which space travel is commonplace and citizenship and property rights are continuously in flux.

In his 2017 article “Arkansas, Meet Tarasoff: The Question of Expanded Liability to Third Persons for Mental Health Professionals” (69 Ark. L. Rev. 987), J. Thomas Sullivan described a hypothetical legal situation involving a psychiatrist. If the psychiatrist is aware that her patient, a pilot, has been exhibiting PTSD symptoms after supposedly witnessing a UFO, would she be held liable for his actions (especially if he crashed a plane due to having an episode)?

The concept of UFOs also figures into Frank S. Ravitch’s 2009 article “Playing the Proof Game: Intelligent Design and the Law” (113 Penn St. L. Rev. 841). He draws parallels to UFO advocates and debated that if their beliefs are comparable to intelligent design proponents in that there is a lack of scientific proof, does this mean that school curriculums should also teach that controversy? For the workplace, in the case LaViolette v. Daley (2000 EEOPUB LEXIS 4858), the EEOC held that patent examiner Paul LaViolette’s belief in extraterrestrials entitled him to the same workplace protections under Title VII as employees who held religious beliefs.

I can understand why the above articles are written on a theoretical basis. If you charted the history of ufology, you have to also consider a mass of hoaxes and conspiracy theories bigger than ufologist Giorgio A. Tsoukalos’ hair (with the COVID-19 situation, though, we are all channeling Tsoukalos as most of us are sporting larger-than-usual manes these days). So, there will be persistent challenges to believing in UFOs. Let us not forget that, in 2003, the crop circles discovered in Rockville turned out to be a hoax.

What is the harm, though, in at least being curious? To quote the character Ellie Arroway from the film “Contact”, “…The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space.”

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