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chilling effect

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

The chilling effect is the suppression of free speech and legitimate forms of dissent among a population because of fear of repercussion. The effect is often generalized within a demographic as a result of punitive actions taken against others who have exercised their rights.

Although the term is relatively new, the chilling effect phenomenon has been observed and actively encouraged throughout history. Speaking out against the government or practicing any other forms of dissent was significantly suppressed during the Stalinist purges in Russia, for example, because of an understandable fear of imprisonment or execution. In the United States, activities and laws that encourage the chilling effect may be challenged in court if they are deemed a deterrent to individual rights, such as the right to free expression.

The term chilling effect originated in a case in the United States Supreme Court, where it was used in reference to the Constitution. Subsequently, Justice William Brennan, overturned a law requiring recipients of “communist political propaganda” to formally acknowledge that they had received it. Justice Brennan determined that requirement to be contrary to the plaintiff’s freedom of expression.

After Edward Snowden’s revelations about wide-scale NSA surveillance of the communications of United States citizens, many public interest groups suffered declining membership and a reluctance among existing members to communicate electronically.

The chilling effect is commonly mentioned as a result of SLAPP suits, a type of frivolous litigation undertaken to make it impractical for people to take legitimate action against activities of an individual or organization that may be in conflict with the public good.

The meaning of chilling effect has been generalized to refer to any activity that tends to suppress a given behavior. In that sense, the term is used in reference to negotiation tactics, economics and personal relationships, among a great number of other things.

This was last updated in September 2018

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