In media law, there’s a concept called a chilling effect.
A chilling effect occurs when external conditions lead the self-censorship of speech or expression. It’s the opposite of prior restraint or actual censorship. It’s not the government punishing people for speech. It’s a general atmosphere where the free and open exchange of ideas is limited because people are afraid of the potential repercussions. Think of the atmosphere after the second Iraq War started and the controversy around the Dixie Chicks.
That’s what’s so insidious about the Jemele Hill-Donald Trump story.
What I am interested in is the fact that the official spokesperson for the President of the United States, speaking behind a podium with the seal of the presidency, said that the speech of a journalist working for a media organization was a “fireable offense.”
Forget what this means for Jemele Hill. She is talented. She is smart. She has the support of so many of us within the sports journalism community.
When the president’s spokesperson calls what a journalist said a “fireable offense” what does that mean for the next person who wants to speak out on an issue they care about? What does that mean for the next young black female journalist who wants to call out the institutional racism she experiences in the press box or on the street? What does this mean for the white ally who wants to speak out for social justice? What does this mean for anyone who wants to speak their mind or report on race, gender, sexuality, income inequity, climate change?
Are they emboldened by this? Or are they frightened? Do they pull back an adjective or two, make one fewer phone call, decide the essay isn’t worth the trouble.
That’s a chilling effect.
That’s one of the scariest developments possible in an open-marketplace of ideas. Because it’s not open anymore. It’s closed, due to fear and intimidation. It’s more insidious than censorship, because it’s done by individuals, and it’s done for rationalized reasons. Ideas aren’t openly discussed, and no one even realizes that conversations aren’t happening.
It truly is chilling.