Hollywood Is Shocked Sony Canceled ‘The Interview’ but Doesn’t Mind Censoring for China

The fight for free speech can get messy.
James Franco and Seth Rogen at the L.A. premiere of 'The Interview' on Dec. 11. (Photo: Araya Diaz/Getty Images)
Dec 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

After the news broke that Pyongyang may have been behind a giant, criminal computer network hack at Sony Pictures Entertainment and that there had been threats of violence against theaters if they showed The Interview, a comedy about an assassination plot against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Sony canceled the film’s release.

Hollywood greeted the news with frustration and outrage.

“Today the U.S. succumbed to an unprecedented attack on our most cherished, bedrock principle of free speech by a group of North Korean terrorists who threatened to kill moviegoers in order to stop the release of a movie,” said Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom.

“Our community is based on freedom of expression. Are we going to suppress ourselves every time someone posts something online? It’s a dark future,” Judd Apatow, who frequently collaborates with The Interview costar Seth Rogen, told the Los Angeles Times.

A-listers may be furious, but this is not the first time the American ideal of free speech has seen a culture clash. In 2012, the U.S. government’s response to a film with a much smaller budget that made an equally massive splash abroad had free speech activists livid.

The Innocence of Muslims, a 14-minute amateur film posted to YouTube that portrays the prophet Mohammad as a pedophile and a murderer, ignited fierce protests among Muslims in 20 countries. Demonstrations often took place outside U.S. embassies, evoking the Tehran embassy protests of 1979, which led to a 444-day hostage ordeal. Discontent with the United States’ actions in Muslim-dominated countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan had been building for years in many countries, and some leaders wanted a swift and decisive response from the U.S. government.

“We ask the American government to take a firm position toward this film’s producers within the framework of international charters that criminalize acts that stir strife on the basis of race, color or religion,” said Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil in a statement. Protesters in Cairo climbed U.S. Embassy walls and tore down an American flag.

U.S. officials didn’t go that far, but they apologized and condemned the video. Then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “disgusting and reprehensible” and said, “It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage.”

The White House asked Google, which owns YouTube, to “review” whether the video violated its policies and could therefore be taken down. The tech giant refused. The video didn’t violate its terms of use regarding hate speech because it attacked the religion of Islam rather than Muslim people, Google argued. The company did, however, block access to the video in a number of Muslim countries because it was in violation of local laws.

After the Obama administration’s request became public, a number of civil rights and First Amendment advocates cried censorship. “There’s no indication that the government is questioning the right of these idiots to make that repellent film. On the other hand, it does make us nervous when the government throws its weight behind any requests for censorship,” Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union told Politico.

The U.S. government finally got its way when a judge ordered Google to remove the video after an actor filed a lawsuit alleging that her image had been used in the film without her consent and without clear indication of the film’s purpose.

While citizens, companies, and advocates will fiercely oppose any attempt by Washington or anyone else to control content within the United States—as has been evident in the Sony debacle—when U.S. companies censor their content at the behest of foreign governments, the outcry often isn’t quite so loud.

Github and LiveJournal block locally prohibited content on suicide and some anti-Putin blogs at the request of the Russian government. Google has agreed to remove certain search results in Europe, and many U.S.-based Internet hubs operating in China block certain sites at the request of Beijing’s (unelected) leadership.

Hollywood itself submits films to China’s censors for review. Censorship is just business as usual for companies that want to profit from distributing content there.

Director Steven Soderbergh takes Chinese censors’ input in stride. “I’m not morally offended or outraged,” he told The New York Times in 2013. “It’s fascinating to listen to people’s interpretations of your story.”