'The Interview' and Free Speech

A Plausible Alternative

by Brice Ezell

22 December 2014

Sony’s cancellation of the 25 December screening of The Interview may not be the free speech catastrophe that it's being made out to be.

To be sure, Sony’s decision to pull the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview from its Christmas Day release following a massive hacking of the company’s computer systems, along with threats of violence invoking 9/11, is troubling on many grounds. For one, it reveals just how tyrannical the North Korean government truly is. The decision is also another piece of evidence for just how deadly cyberterrorism continues to be, given that, according to security research, whoever hacked Sony’s databases following the controversy surrounding The Interview had “extensive knowledge of Sony’s internal architecture and access to key passwords.” Above all else, however, Sony’s move has raised numerous questions about the importance of free speech.

Sony’s cancellation of the 25 December screening of The Interview may not be the free speech catastrophe that it’s being made out to be.

In an article for PopMatters‘s film blog Short Ends and Leader, Bill Gibron argues against the cancellation of the film’s release date on the grounds of the freedom of speech. He argues that as a result of this decision, other movie studios “will now step back, unable to brave the fallout from a potentially controversial property. It’s censorship as cowardice, and it’s the new norm.” Gibron cites the choice of the New Regency film company to cancel a Gore Verbinski-directed thriller set in North Korea starring Steve Carrell. Decisions like these, Gibron rightly notes, are an example of what is called “‘the chilling effect’, translated as the restriction of speech and/or expression based on the notion that, by precedent, we can presume/predict a response.”

cover art

The Interview

Director: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Timothy Simons

US theatrical: TBD
UK theatrical: TBD

Gibron is, of course, correct. Speech and artistic expression should not be censored based on a concern that people will not like it, or perhaps even act out against it. For example, while there have been thought-provoking arguments about the racist casting dynamics in Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, no one there is suggesting that the film be banned. These angry consumers are well within their rights to not give Scott their money by seeing the movie, but it would be another thing entirely if they called for a regulatory body to bar the movie from being shown. Furthermore,while there are credible arguments to be made for laws against hate speech, incitement, or “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” cases, western liberal societies have long prided themselves on engaging in artistic discourses that often involve incendiary works of art.

For example in 2006, with two years still left in George W. Bush’s presidency, British filmmaker Gabriel Range released the film Death of a President, the central conceit of which is the fictional assassination of President Bush. That film screened all across America, even with the Bush administration still in office. Many people were not happy with the film (including former First Lady Hillary Clinton), but no one was arrested or tried for treason in the process of making it. One can contest both the artistic merits or the political tastefulness of the movie, but it’s hard not to admit that the existence of Death of a President reflects a strong commitment to freedom of expression.

One can also consider the fact that, despite American society’s general loathing of the Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group masquerading as a church, the organization is still allowed to have protests. Cases like that are a living example of the long-standing view that the test of one’s principles is not how one practices them when things are easy, but rather when things are difficult. Indeed, one of the things about free speech that makes it deserving of stringent protection is that it makes us uncomfortable. It challenges and awakens us from complacency and dogma.

For all of those reasons, the cancellation of The Interview‘s initial release date should alarm people about the important matter of free speech. One should not be surprised that Gibron, along with many others, has begun to feel the icy climb of the chilling effect. As a society, we should be concerned about what has happened here.

However, this may not be the free speech catastrophe that it’s being made out to be. While the full picture of what is going on here will only become clear as the relevant facts come out while both Sony and the United States government try to figure out who the hackers are, at the moment there is reason to believe that Sony’s move is not an act of capitulation to terrorists, even if it does superficially appear that way.

To understand why, one needs to examine what Sony specifically said in its press release following the cancellation. It reads:

In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

Dominic Patten of Deadline received an additional statement from a Sony representative: “Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film.”

Here is what we can infer from both Sony’s official statement and the follow-up given to Deadline: The Interview will not be released… on 25 December.

That last date is important. Patten makes a seriously overexaggerated claim when, in the same article where he provides the comment from Sony’s rep, he announces, “The Interview is over – really and truly.” The one thing that certainly cannot be concluded from Sony’s official statements is that the movie will never be released. Far from it.

In fact, based on all that has happened, it’s impossible to imagine The Interview not being released.

+ + +

Following the hacking of Sony’s databases, the company received threats from a group calling itself “Guardians of Peace”. These threats include attacks on any theatre that plans to show the film; the Guardians of (Really Anything But) Peace intone, “The world will be full of fear… Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time”.

What the Guardians of Peace is trying to do is the classic moral hat-trick that terrorists and extortionists keep at the top of their repertoires: threaten to do something bad unless your victim does something you want, that way if they don’t do what you want, they feel morally culpable for the crime that happens. Of course, were the Guardians of Peace to actually mount an attack—assuming the threats are credible—it would be the only guilty party, period. One does not have to bend over backwards to make the moral argument that, in this case, attempting to transfer blame onto an innocent party is a futile enterprise. Nevertheless, this hat-trick plays on the seemingly endless human capacity for fear, and as a consequence it continues to have power.

However, although these threats are anonymous and, as of this point, unverifiable, Sony does have a legitimate empirical reason to be concerned about releasing The Interview: the company has already been hacked. The results of the hacking are serious, and the company is in the right state of mind if it’s trying to minimize losses at this point. Sony has lost several unreleased films to file sharing, meaning numerous sizeable investments made by the studio are now likely to face financial losses. Further, numerous communiqués were leaked, revealing unflattering remarks from high-level executives about famous actors and actresses.

All of these things are bad for company image and profit; it should be no surprise, then, that Sony is taking serious action to ensure that no other attacks on the company—to say nothing of the lives of innocent moviegoers—will occur. Like any major company in a capitalist system, Sony’s incentives are fundamentally fiduciary; as such, it’s transparent as to why it’s doing whatever it can to cover up for what has been a major financial liability and a huge source of embarrassment. As I stated previously, it’s entirely understandable to be angered by Sony’s decision, as the implications for free speech drawn out by Gibron and all of Sony’s critics on this matter are of grave importance. But to see swaths of people stunned by what was the most obvious choice for Sony makes little sense, given the nature of the profit motive.

Sony’s profit-maximizing (or, in this case, profit-saving) incentives notwithstanding, here one is likely to point out that the issue here is not primarily about profits. She would be correct in pointing this out. She would also be correct in noting that, even if profit motive was the major concern, Sony stands to lose $80 million by pulling The Interview from theaters, in addition to the $100 million (and growing) costs that the company is accruing as a result of the cyberattack. In the short term, that figure is likely. In the long term, however, the company actually has good reason to be optimistic about profits from the film.

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