Free Speech Survey ReportMichael Langone, PhD
On August 2, 2014 ICSA posted a survey that aims to collect data on how former members of high-control or cultic groups, family members, and others may have had their exercise of free speech curtailed or suppressed.
Although the primary goal of the survey was to find out about lawsuits designed to suppress criticism, the survey was also interested in exploring other ways in which individuals may have at least perceived their free speech to have been curtailed.
An e-mail to 3580 people on ICSA’s mailing list invited recipients to complete a “free speech survey.” 109 persons completed the survey between August 2nd and August 22nd, 2014. A large majority (nearly 80%) were former members of cultic groups.
Given that only a relatively small percentage of people in ICSA’s network are activists (e.g., running websites, speaking out about groups), our sample may be reasonably representative of the activist sub-population within the ICSA network, though we cannot be sure. In any event, the number of people who responded and the speed of their response suggests that the topic of free speech concerns many persons within the ICSA network.
After collecting demographic data, the survey asked 13 forced-choice questions, the responses to which are listed in the next section.
Have you been sued because of your exercise of free speech?
If you have been sued, do you have legal documents you are willing and able to share with others?
Yes = 11
Have you received communications with an implied threat of a lawsuit?
Yes = 29
No = 77
Blank = 3
Have you received legal communications protesting your critical comments but not threatening to sue?
Yes = 24
No = 84
Blank = 1
Have you received face-to-face threats or intimidation because of your criticism?
Yes = 56
No = 52
Blank = 1
Have you received one or more intimidating phone calls because of your criticism?
Yes = 51
No = 57
Blank = 1
Has your website been hacked?
Yes = 14
Not sure = 24
No = 72
Have people attempted to shut down your website?
Yes = 15
Not sure = 16
No = 74
Blank = 5
Has your credibility or character been attacked because of your criticism?
Yes = 87
No = 21
Blank = 1
To what degree have your efforts to educate others been inhibited because of threats or harassment you received?
Reduced educational efforts – 24
Significantly reduced – 18
Stopped – 8
Not affected – 29
Not applicable – 18
With regard to involvement in a high-control or cultic group, please mark all that apply
Former Members (includes SGAs) – 86
Former Member – 40
Former Member/SGA – 3
Former Member /Family – 15
Former / SGA / family – 22
SGA – 28
Marked SGA only – 3
Family – 50
Marked family only – 10
Blank – 15
Would you like education or training on the legal dimensions of exercising free speech?
Yes – 42
No – 22
Maybe – 31
Blank – 16
Would you like a report on the results of this survey?
Yes = 96
No = 12
Blank = 0
The last question in the survey said: “In the box below, please briefly describe how your exercise of free speech has been threatened?”
Although names and other identifying demographic details are not provided in this report, I have decided not to list all of the narrative responses because too many of them implicitly, if not explicitly, reveal the identity of the respondent. Moreover, the comments amount to nearly 10,000 words.
I will, however, try to give readers a sense of the kinds of comments respondents made.
First of all, it should be noted that not all perceptions of suppressed speech rise to the level of actual or threatened lawsuits. Some respondents reported that they felt speech-inhibited, because of
- intimidation by family members
- threats of eternal damnation, disfellowshipping, or excommunication
- a fear of being “outed” on private Web forums or having information given in confidence (e.g., in “confessions”) made public
- telephone calls demanding that the person stop criticizing the group
- fear that current group members would come to the critic’s home
- fear that criticism would mean loss of contact with family still in the group
- complaints to university authorities, professional associations, or licensing agencies
- fear of hurting people still in the group
- a residual sense of loyalty to the group
- attacks on social media platforms
- a fear that lawsuits might follow public criticism
- a reluctance to experience the harassment that more outspoken critics had experienced
- attempts to prevent the respondent from testifying in a court case
- fear of being called crazy
- physical threats
Though these kinds of speech inhibition characterize the majority of respondents, over 10% of respondents (n=14) were formally sued, and nearly half were threatened with lawsuits or received intimidating legal letters.
Of 79 who responded to the question asking respondents to rate the degree to which their educational efforts had been inhibited, 8 said that they had stopped those efforts entirely, 18 said their efforts had been significantly reduced, and 24 said that their efforts had been reduced. We cannot say which of the 29 who said that they were not affected by speech-suppression threats did not experience harassment or how many continued with their work in spite of harassment.
In some cases, critics may have been suppressed by intimidating legal tactics because they did not have the money to defend themselves, not because they had acted improperly. In other cases, critics may have been injudicious in their speech, though sometimes even irresponsibly articulated criticisms may be valid at their core.
This brief report will not discuss legal intimidation in depth, for to do so would require details about specific cases that this brief survey does not provide. A future study could explore this issue.
It is noteworthy that more than one-third of respondents were definitely interested in education/training on the legal dimensions of exercising free speech, and more than half were open to such education/training.
Those who decry the use of the legal system as a speech-inhibiting weapon can support critics of cultic groups by:
- supporting or contributing to the development of resources aimed at making critics and whistleblowers more careful and more effective in their testimonies, and
- providing pro bono or subsidized legal aid to those critics whose economic resources are dwarfed by the resources of those they criticize.
If you did not take part in the survey, but would like to share your experiences regarding free speech suppression, please contact ICSA.