Thursday, March 31, 2011


The sign today was:


...which resulted in a complaint by someone to the police, a conversation with the police, and my writing on the back of the sign and putting up:


...which attracted fewer people than I would have anticipated (are students so fearful? are they completely uncurious?). The sign did, however, attract curiosity seekers of different species:

This first sign was up for exactly one hour before I decided to take it down. I did so because two university police officers informed me that if there were someone standing on the Quad near my sign who then said to them that they felt their life was directly threatened by the content of my sign, they would have to take me to jail. (See the complete transcript of my conversation with them below). News of the sign was posted on facebook within two hours of putting the sign up.

Reactions to the messages:

- some agreed that there is value in contemplating one’s mortality

- one guy said he found some of my signs inspiring, but this one he found unpleasant

- two guys walked by, saw the sign, laughed, and said “Cool”

- one guy suspected I made up that the police were called to attract attention to the sign

- one guy suspected nothing was written on the back of the sign

- one girl said, “The police were upset with that sign? It’s just a fact; a philosophical statement.”

- one elderly man said I should have left the first sign up to make a stand for free speech

To those who wanted to see the reverse side of the sign I would first ask: "Do you feel threatened by me?" or "Do you promise not to call the police on me?" or "Okay, are you ready to see some hardcore child porn?" This last question seemed to offend some people.

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 31.

Here is the full transcript of the conversation with the police:

11:53 I see two police officers come out of Miller Hall

11:59-12:31 officers R. F. and A. E. come up to me
- hello - is this your sign? - yes - is this your bag? - yes - could you please take your hands out of your pockets - [i take my hands out of my pockets, and with them my cell phone] - can you show some identification? - i'd rather not - [pause] - do you insist? - [the senior officer indicates wordlessly that he does] - okay; may i record this conversation? - no, you may not - may i take notes? - yes, you may - [i take out my notepad and pen and take down the officers' names and badge numbers and record the time and topic of our conversation; i hand my passport to the senior police officer] you are campus police…- no we’re university police – i’m sorry - do you have any Washington state ID? - no, i do not - are you a resident in Washington state? - yes, i am - you don't have a driver's license? - i don't drive - do you have any other form of identification? - no, i have no credit cards or anything else; i used to have a Washington state driver's license but i let it lapse about 20 years ago - [they give information over their police radios about my passport] - we're here because someone called us saying there was a man dressed all in black threatening that they were going to die - my sign is simply stating a fact - it can be understood to mean you are threatening someone - i have stood here for the past three months with 20 different signs; people know me and that i am not threatening – what kinds of signs did you have? – “DON’T THINK”, “THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU” [I deliberately leave out mentioning yesterday’s "BEAT WOMEN” sign]; when I had the sign “THIS SIGN WILL NOT BE SHOWN ON TV”, two university police officers came up to ask me what the sign meant; it was a woman and a black man – we know who they are – they said they’d come on to the Quad because someone was filming something; is filming on the Quad not allowed? [I get no answer to this question]; i keep a blog about the signs that is read on every continent in the world except Antarctica - can we see your blog? - yes - [the quieter officer takes down the address] - please take a look at it - i will - the problem is people can perceive the sign as a direct threat; if there were someone standing right here telling me they felt there was a personal threat to their safety, i would have to take you to jail - but the meaning of the sign is the following: it is a statement of biological fact and is at the same time a philosophical statement; i believe contemplating one's own mortality is extremely important for personal development and becoming happy; in addition, many of the enlightened masters from the Buddhist school began their path to enlightenment with a contemplation of their own mortality - [this seems to be at little over their head of the officer i’m speaking with] - if someone told me they felt there was a direct threat to their safety, in this day and age, i would have to take you to jail - but my intention is not to threaten anyone - that does not matter - then you are saying that the interpretation of what i say is what takes precedence, not what i intend to say - yes, i am [* see Postscript below]- this seems to be a slippery slope: if 400 years ago in Salem i said i saw a star in the sky in the middle of the day i would have been burned at the stake as a witch because that's what i would have been perceived to be - if someone feels there is a direct threat to them, i have to respond - but for there to be a crime, there must be mens rea; you must establish criminal intent on the part of the person being charged with a crime - today when you have people who come on to college campuses and shoot people we have to be especially careful – but you had the man shoot people on the University of Texas campus in the 70s – actually that was in the 50s; the man was taken down by police together with assistance from citizens – yes, i read about that; i guess i should take down my sign if you say you can take me to jail - that's probably a good idea; i'm not telling you to do that; this is a public campus; but if someone perceives the sign as a threat i will have to take action - [at 12:04 i turn the sign around so that it is not visible] can i add a clarification to the sign so that people know it is not a threat? - that would definitely help to let people know you're not threatening them - what if i write something like: "I was informed by campus police that this could be perceived as being a threat and that in order to ensure it is not so perceived I should add this disclaimer to the sign"? - i don't know how you would fit that on a sign - did you receive a call from someone about the sign? - yes, we did; we received a call stating that there was a man dressed all in black threatening them that they were going to die; again, we are not telling you to take the sign down, but if you were to stand out here for another five hours with the sign, my guess is that we would get about five more calls - i don't want to waste your time... - it's not wasting our time; it's our job - can i see the statute that relates to what i'm doing - [they produce a piece of paper] - may i have this - no - may i read it aloud and record it on my phone? - yes, you may - [i sit down on the bench and do so] - please don't think i'm being a smart aleck, but what if i were to call you and complain about myself? - you can't call in a complaint about yourself - i mean i would do it anonymously; i wouldn't say who i was - no, if someone makes a formal complaint we take down their name and number - what about this? if i put a disclaimer on the sign explaining that my intention is not to threaten but to generate a philosophical discussion about mortality, but someone doesn't come up close enough to read it and reads only the "YOU ARE GOING TO DIE" part, can you still take me to jail? - if someone is at the far end of the campus looking at the sign through binoculars and sees the sign, i would argue they could not perceive it as a direct threat...[at this point i decide against asking about a hypothetical situation in which i may have planted a bomb on the campus] all cases for there to be a crime there must be a victim, except in the case of a drug-related crime in which case the society is considered to be the victim - what about suicide? - suicide is classified as a crime - i mean, in the case of a suicide who is the victim? - do you mean after the person kills themselves? - i mean who would be classified as the victim under the law? would he be his own victim? - if someone is standing out here with a knife held to his throat threatening to hurt himself, i will do everything possible to get that person medical treatment - could you tackle him - yes, i would do what i could to get him help - could you, say, shoot him in the leg? - if he was threatening our safety or [with emphasis] your safety, i could use force; it's my job to protect people - if you were a really good shot, could you shoot him in the hand so that he dropped the knife? - again, i'm here to get that person the help they need - can i ask how many university police officers there are? - there are 47 of us, from the chief all the way down to recruits...

12:20 Will comes up, dressed all in black as usual
- [the police address Will] are you connected with this sign? - no, i just came up to look... - so, again, we're not telling you to take down the sign; but if we get a complaint we'll have to come out here again - ok - goodbye - goodbye

12:31 the police leave


With respect to the interpretation of perceivers of forms of expression trumping the intention of the author of that expression...

In 2008 some male students at Colorado College composed and distributed anonymously a flyer they called “The Monthly Bag” that parodied a flyer from the feminist and gender studies program called “The Monthly Rag.” The parody flyer included references to: "tough guy wisdom," "chainsaw etiquette," the range of a sniper rifle, and a quotation about "female violence and abuse" of men from the website The college subjected the authors of the parody flyer to an hours-long hearing and disciplinary letters were placed in their official files. [you can read about the incident here].

In a letter to one of the students responsible for the parody flyer, the Vice President for Student Life/Dean of Students of Colorado College wrote:

”I recognize that your intent in posting the publication was not to threaten but to parody. But in the climate in which we find ourselves today, violence—or implied violence—of any kind cannot be tolerated on a college campus. I believe the issue here is not whether or not you intended to threaten anyone. The fact is that your publication was received as a threat by members of the Colorado College community. The content of “The Monthly Bag,” in particular the juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality, combined with the fact that is was distributed anonymously, led it to be received as a threat. As a liberal arts college, we pride ourselves on the free exchange of ideas in pursuit of education, and we support freedom of speech. However, as a private institution, we cannot support forms of speech that disrupt our community to the point of causing members of it to feel threatened or afraid.”

The full text of the letter is here.


  1. Just a sidenote (I'm Nav, one of the ones working on the film), my friend told me he WAS curious on what was on the other side of the sign (he just didn't walk up and ask).

    Another sidenote, I have a blog where I put down kind of philosophical/life questions and thoughts. You might find it interesting:

    the URL is:

  2. See you later, Space Cowboy.

  3. As a kid (boy) you have little plastic men. Some are soldiers, cowboys, Indians, Romans, assorted types.
    You give them life; they can hear, speak, move, all like humans. They all stare upwards to you.
    As you look down you welcome them to the “living world.”
    “You now have free will. You can speak for yourselves and move as you wish. I am your God. Live the way you wish. There are only two fundamentals you each must follow to continue on living:
    1. You must kill each other
    2. You must eat each other.”

    Could you imagine the scenario and would you make those Rules on your little people?

    1. The above imaginative thought is a test about our own mortality. And religion. Usually I get frowns and looks of disgust that I would be so morbid, as a God. It is unanimous that NO ONE would ever think to impose such gruesome Rules on objects they gave life to—except a real deranged mind.
      To which I reply: “Those are the Rules God gave us.”*
      To which we argue the semantics: do we kill each other; do we eat each other?

      *I like to add: the “creatures” decided early on to separate into two categories: human and animal. That the humans agreed to eat only animal.