Visiting an art exhibit featuring works about the U.S. war on terror or going to a lecture about Islam wouldn’t be cause for worry—unless you found out that the government was monitoring and keeping track of attendees. At that point, some people would be spooked and stay away, sacrificing their interests and curiosity to protect their privacy, not look suspicious, or stay off a list some intelligence agency might be keeping.
Government surveillance has that chilling effect—on our activities, choices and communications—and carries serious consequences. We argue in our lawsuit First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, et al v. NSA that the government’s collection of phone records violates the First Amendment rights of our clients—churches and civil and human rights organizations—by discouraging members and constituents from associating and communicating with them for fear of being spied on.
Now two new studies examining the use of Facebook and Wikipedia show that this chilling effect is real. Both studies demonstrate that government surveillance discourages speech and access to information and knowledge on the Internet. What happens is that people begin to self-police their communications: they are more likely to avoid associating with certain groups or individuals, or looking at websites or articles, when they think the government is watching them or the groups/people with whom they connect. This hurts our democracy and society as a whole.