Testy North Korea puts a chill on American free speech

‘The Interview” is now the most famous movie you might never get to see.

And that’s a shame. Not because the Seth Rogen comedy was likely to be on critics’ “10 best” list of 2014 but because Sony Pictures’ decision not to release the movie reflects a chilling capitulation to threats apparently by North Korea.

The “Guardians of Peace” hackers linked to North Korea reacted to the planned Dec. 25 release of the movie first by leaking embarrassing emails of Sony executives, personal employee information and even bootleg copies of the company’s big holiday releases. Then they threatened terrorist attacks against any theaters showing “The Interview.”

When the nation’s three top multiplexes announced they would postpone showings of the movie, Sony pulled the plug. It has no plans to make the film available online or on DVD.

North Korea’s reaction to the film was probably predictable. After all, a key plot point involves the graphic assassination of that country’s “supreme leader,” Kim Jong Un.

Put aside whether Sony should have greenlighted a film about killing a sitting leader for comedic purposes, especially the leader of a nuclear nation not known for rational behavior. In North Korea, even thinking about killing Kim is a crime against the state.

But this isn’t North Korea; in America, artists have freedom of expression. Take “Death of a President,” a British film depicting the imagined assassination of George W. Bush, which came out while Bush was still in office. Although roundly denounced by many, it was allowed to be shown in this country. Our disaster movies regularly blow up the nation’s capital and New York City.

And it’s not as if North Korea doesn’t fantasize about killing the U.S. president. One of its propaganda films last year depicted North Korean missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol and White House.

Sony’s fortunes aside – it stands to lose millions of dollars by shelving the film – a bigger issue is the precedent set by caving to threats that President Obama says don’t appear credible. Will this give ideas to others who don’t like the way they’re portrayed in American entertainment? Will the hacking threat intimidate other artists and cow them into making “safe” choices out of fear of inviting retaliation?

The hack attack also shows how vulnerable our computers are to cybercrime. Fortunately this intrusion victimized an entertainment company and not a key infrastructure provider. At the very least, Sony’s woes should spur greater attention to cybersecurity.