Family Research Council President Tony Perkins is taking aim at the Southern Poverty Law Center, particularly their Hate Group List/Map. Perkins’ opposition to the Hate Group List/Map is nothing new–his organization has been on the list since 2010–but his most recent effort attempts to do more than merely discredit the list as being biased against conservative Christians; he’s attempting to place a causal connection between the Hate Group List/Map and Floyd Lee Corkins’ shooting up of the Family Research Center’s office building on August 15, 2012.
A bit of context here, from LifeNews.com:
Corkins entered the lobby armed with a loaded semi-automatic pistol, 100 rounds of ammunition, and 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches. He started firing at FRC’s building manager Leo Johnson who heroically tackled the shooter after a gunshot shattered his arm.
Corkins had been infuriated by anti-LGBT demonstrations around the country, particularly those surrounding the Chick-fil-A controversy. During an interrogation, Corkins said:
I wanted to kill the people in the building and then smear a Chick-fil-A sandwich in their face… to kill as many people as I could.”
So where does the SPLC fit in to all this? During the same interrogation, Corkins was asked why he targeted the FRC. He told interrogators that he went online in order to find specific anti-LGBT organizations and that, upon doing so, found the Hate Group List/Map at the SPLC–for Corkins, a resident of Herndon, Virginia, FRC’s proximity and notoriety made them a convenient choice.
So what’s Perkins’ angle here? Corkins pled guilty to crossing state lines with guns and ammunition, intent to kill while armed, and committing an act of terrorism with the intent to kill. Those are hefty charges. What exactly is Perkins wanting?
Perkins said in a statement:
The SPLC’s reckless labeling has led to devastating consequences. Because of its ‘hate group’ labeling, a deadly terrorist had a guide map to FRC and other organizations. Our team is still dealing with the fallout of the attack, that was intended to have a chilling effect on organizations that are simply fighting for their values.
What I find interesting here is Perkins’ use of “chilling effect.” According to USLegal.com, “chilling effect” is defined as:
… a term in law and communication that described a situation where a speech or conduct is suppressed by fear of penalization at the interests of an individual or group. It can affect one’s free speech.
I guess it depends on what is meant by “fear of penalization at the interests of an individual or group.” It seems that “at the interests of an individual or group” is key. While a chilling effect is primarily concerned with laws involving penalization by authorities–consider here England’s libel law–it may also involve pressures felt by people or groups embracing an unpopular minority opinion within a society at large. We could think back on the 2003 burning of Dixie Chick paraphernalia, the Danish Muhammed cartoons of 2005, and the backlash against teenage skeptic Jessica Ahlquist in 2012.
This leaves us with more than a handful of considerations–far too many to be dealt with here. And while I’d be curious to hear arguments in favor of Perkins’ claim, I’m far more concerned with the potential fallout were the SPLC’s Hate Group List/Map to be deemed guilty of creating a “chilling effect” on certain opinions. This, to me, is of central importance as it would, in theory, have ramifications well-beyond what Perkins’ may wish to admit. Let me list only a few of my own, focusing only on what I believe to be relevant, in particular, to Perkins and the FRC:
- Could preaching that gay and lesbian behavior is an abomination–Perkins thinks it should be illegal–that leads to social destruction and that unrepentant gays and lesbians will go to Hell qualify as having a chilling effect on gays and lesbians, as well as their advocates?
- Could individuals or groups opposing the LGBT community he held responsible for the murder of gays and lesbians on account of their preaching from texts in the bible that they interpret to mean that homosexual behavior is sinful and that gays and lesbians are deviant, depraved and even predatory?
- Could insisting that abortion is murder–at any stage of development after conception–have a chilling effect on people speaking openly about their beliefs regarding contraception and abortion?
- Could individuals and groups opposing contraception and abortion be held responsible for the murder of abortion doctors on account of their writing and speaking about organizations that support comprehensive sex-education, the use of birth control, and a woman’s right to choose?
- Could a case be made that conservative Christians use the bible to identifying beliefs and activities (and, consequently, people and groups) that they believe to be hateful, destructive, and potentially dangerous in a way akin to how some may use the SPLC List to identify people and groups advocating beliefs that they believe to be hateful, destructive, and potentially dangerous?
The possible (or even potential) chilling effect that could result were Perkins to get his way would extend well-beyond religion, of course. It would effect how people and organizations discuss issues including but not limited to feminism, family values, war, the death penalty, patriotism, the environment, torture, the Constitution, and even animal cruelty. Most relevant here, it would have a particularly dramatic impact on activism and advocacy!
As the editor-in-chief of the SPLC’s Intelligence Report, Mark Potok, said:
The FRC and its allies on the religious right are saying, in effect, that offering legitimate and fact-based criticism in a democratic society is tantamount to suggesting that the objects of criticism should be targets of criminal violence.
In short, Perkins’ insistence of a causal connection between Corkins and the SPLC Hate Group List/Map, if applied in principle across the board, and if allowed to reach its logical conclusion, would lead to the mother of all chilling effects: an entire culture frozen in fear of being penalized at the interests of an individual or group for speaking openly about their beliefs and identifying people and groups standing in open–and at times aggressive–opposition to those beliefs.
Free speech is messy, no doubt; and we should never grow weary of placing blame where blame is due, admitting causal connections to one degree or another wherever and whenever they are actually relevant; but there’s more than a handful of excellent reasons why everyone ought to be really worried about Perkins’ line of reasoning, recognizing that fear-mongering over an alleged “chilling effect” could, if not resisted, lead to a Big Freeze on free speech as we know it.