The Interview and Free Speech

It’s hard to imagine a more bizarre challenge to the notion of freedom of speech than the North Korea-Sony debacle over the still only semi-released film The Interview. For those who might not be aware; in short the film is about a journalist and his producer getting a chance to interview North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and then being tasked by the CIA to kill the young Kim. The movie itself is your standard Seth Rogen stoner flick, involving intellectually adolescent man-children in one of the weirder, but by no means more insightful adventures. As a genre goes, the stoner flick isn’t likely to gain much credibility in the foreseeable future.

But all of that aside, the real interest the film generated wasn’t in its laboured toilet humor and overuse of silly sight gags. It was the alleged response of North Korea, which was to openly condemn the film, and, if the US government is to believed, task an elite group of North Korean hackers with breaking into Sony’s computer network and stealing everything from payroll records to unreleased films to embarrassing executive emails.

More troubling was the threat made by the hacking group that any attempt to release The Interview would lead to terrorist acts. This quickly saw major North American theater chains pull out of showing the film, leading Sony to cancel the film’s release. While it all looks like an extraordinary overreaction (how exactly would North Korea actually carry out a huge terror campaign on US soil), one can understand why theaters reacted this way. They were doubtlessly still edgy after the 2012 Aurora shooting, where a clearly deranged individual, James Holmes, opened fire in a crowded movie theater, killing twelve people.

This inevitably, and not without some justification, lead many commentators to accuse Sony and the theater chains of suppressing free expression based on the alleged threats of a dictator a half a world away. Apart from the implausibility of North Korea mounting a vast series of terror attacks, some have even questioned whether North Korea, whose Internet connection is apparently a single route through China, could mount such an attack. Still, even if Kim Jong-un wasn’t ultimately responsible for the Sony network attack, he must feel himself a very powerful fellow indeed, to have caused the multi-billion dollar film industry in the most militarily powerful nation in the history of the world to fold based on dubious threats of retaliation.

It’s hard for me to condemn either Sony or the theaters. The theaters clearly don’t want to invite attacks that would leave patrons dead or injured. They may be overly risk averse, but so are many industries. If such an attack were to actually happen, the losses for the big chains, both in the court of public opinion and likely in civil court, would be monumental. Why go to the mat over a Rogen-Franco film? As to Sony, well, if no one will show one of their films, what is it they are supposed to do?

If I have any criticism to make of Sony, it is that they apparently did a screening at the White House, doubtless to get the US Administration’s opinion on a film that portrays in fairly graphic detail the murder of a foreign head of state. While that might seem prudent, I think it was wrong to seek the US Government’s advice, as it gives some truth to North Korea’s complaint that the film was sanctioned by the US Government.

The United States is a free country protected by the First Amendment’s very strong admonition against state interference in citizens’ free expression. Sony and the film’s producers were under no obligation to seek the US Government’s approval, and the US Government was in no position to force the alteration or canceling of the film. By going to the US Administration for an opinion, the film’s producers gave the appearance of deference.

In the end, the wrong is being somewhat put to rights. Google is distributing the film on its streaming service, and a few theaters are screening the film. But the whole episode brings into question not only our growing hysteria over even the most improbable terrorist threats, but also our growing tendency to treat our governments like our keepers. This in the long run could create greater risks for our liberties than the Kim dynasty of North Korea.