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Understanding Chilling Effects

By Jonathon W. Penney. Full Text.

With digital surveillance and censorship on the rise, the amount of data available unprecedented, and corporate and governmental actors increasingly employing emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology for surveillance and data analytics, concerns about “chilling effects,” that is, the capacity for these activities to “chill” or deter people from exercising their rights and freedoms, have taken on greater urgency and importance. Yet, there remains a clear dearth in systematic theoretical and empirical work points. This has left significant gaps in understanding. This Article has attempted to fill that void, synthesizing theoretical and empirical insights from law, privacy, and a range of social science fields toward a more comprehensive and unified understanding.

I argue that conventional theories, based on fear of legal or privacy harm, are narrow, are empirically weak, cannot predict or explain chilling effects in a range of different contexts, and neglect the productive dimensions of chilling effects—how chilling effects shape behavior. Drawing extensively on social science literature, I argue that chilling effects are best understood as a form of social conformity. Chilling effects arise out of contexts of ambiguity and uncertainty—like the ambiguity of a vague law or surveillance—but have deeper psychological foundations as well. In moments of situational uncertainty, people conform to and comply with the relevant social norm in that context. Sometimes this means self-censorship, but most often it means more socially conforming speech or conduct. A theory of chilling effects as social conformity has important normative, theoretical, and empirical advantages, including greater explanatory and predictive power, clarifying what chilling effects theory is for and what it produces, as well as providing a basis to navigate competing and differing chilling effect claims. It also has implications, I argue, for constitutional standing as well as the First Amendment chilling effects doctrine.