I’m usually not very moved by complaints that “freedom of speech” has been violated when the entity imposing the alleged censorship is one other than government.
People can make poor decisions, but ultimately when a private newspaper, television station or publisher chooses not to print or broadcast a particular message, I generally chalk it up to a fair exercise of their prerogative. After all, the reason government censorship of speech is such a big deal is that it comes with fundamental restrictions on liberty. If you say something a movie studio doesn’t like, the worst the studio can do is decline to make or distribute your movie. If you say something a government doesn’t like, the government can put you in jail and refuse to let you out. Coercion is the crucial difference.
My simple calculus has been tested, though, by the bizarre crisis that has befallen Sony’s new film The Interview. The movie is a fictional comedy about two American journalists, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, who assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the CIA. This plot did not go over at all well with a real-life group of hackers loyal to Kim Jong-un, who have responded with a massive cyber-attack on Sony — which has included the theft and leaking of reams of sensitive emails — and threats of violence if Sony released the movie in theatres.
Sony’s initial response was to pull the film — or perhaps it just couldn’t find any theatres willing to show it, as it later claimed. Either way, the cries that “freedom of speech” had been curtailed were quick and frequent. The question is, were they right, given that Sony seemed to be choosing to censor itself?
Oddly enough, they were. It’s true that we are not dealing here with a situation where government is the entity muzzling expression. (At least not directly. There are pretty good indications the North Korean government is behind the hacking, though we don’t know for sure yet.) The difference, however, between the silencing of those who made The Interview and the usual instances of non-government censorship is the means used to achieve the quiet.
Unlike a newspaper turning down a comment piece it doesn’t like, which merely imposes on the writer a disappointing rejection that requires him to find some other way to convey his thoughts, the hackers seemed to have denied the movie-makers’ fundamental rights by stealing Sony’s property and threatening to inflict physical violence on Sony’s customers.
That’s not government censorship (even if Kim Jong-un happens to be behind it): No laws are being used to prevent Sony from broaching (albeit satirically) the sensitive subject of Kim Jong-un’s assassination. But it might as well be government censorship given what is at stake for Sony: private property and physical safety. So while all the politicians, actors and pundits that have characterized the Sony cyber-attack as an attack on free speech may sound overwrought, they really aren’t exaggerating.
Though he got actor James Franco’s name wrong when he commented on the whole affair, U.S. President Barack Obama was at least partly on the mark otherwise when he stated, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship in the United States.” Only he could have gone further: We really can’t have a society anywhere in which anyone uses theft and violence to interfere with people’s freedom to express themselves. At least, not if we expect that society to be vital and capable of robust debate and truth-seeking.
Charges of outrageous censorship get thrown around way too often. Unfortunately, in the case of The Interview, they’re actually warranted. But there’s still the potential for a happy ending.
Sony announced Tuesday that it will release The Interview on Dec. 25 after all, both in select theatres and through video on demand. Let’s hope that’s a sign we won’t put up with anyone — foreign dictator or local government — choosing for us what we can and cannot say.
Originally published with the National Post
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