US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

After a group called Guardians of Peace threatened to attack theaters showing “The Interview,” Sony Pictures cancelled the film’s Christmas Day premiere. It was a move that drew condemnation from all quarters, even the White House. Calling Sony’s decision “a mistake,” President Barack Obama explained, “Imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That's not who we are. That's not what America is about.”

Obama is right. And Sony now has a choice to make: to use this instance to promote greater freedom of expression, or to break with American cinematic history by capitulating to threats of terror and violence.

Threats against films are not a new phenomenon. On March 9, 1977, 12 Hanafi Muslims led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalif took more than 140 people hostage in three locations across the District of Columbia. Among their demands: that theaters across the nation stop showing the movie “Mohammad, Messenger of God,” which told the story of Islam without showing its titular character. Though approved by Koranic authorities in Egypt and financed by the governments of Morocco, Kuwait and Libya, Khaalif and other hardline Muslims saw the film as a type of blasphemous graven image.

The standoff lasted 39 hours, during which a young radio reporter was killed and dozens others injured, including future D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. While the crisis unfolded, the movie was pulled from theaters. But once the standoff ended, screenings resumed, despite warnings from Khaalif’s wife that “more trouble is coming, worse than before, all over the country.” The movie was hardly a blockbuster, but theaters made an important show of strength by airing it in the wake of serious threats.

Nor was “Mohammad” the first film to deal with both threats of violence and efforts to shut down screenings over objectionable content. In 1950, bomb threats disrupted New York screenings of “The Miracle,” an Italian film denounced as sacrilegious by the Catholic Church. At the time, American law allowed controversial films to be quashed by state censors. As film historians Laura Wittern-Keller and Raymond Haberski noted in their study of the Miracle case, by 1950 New York “had been prescreening every commercially exhibited film for three decades.”

When the New York censors banned the film after its initial screenings, the film’s distributor Joseph Burstyn fought back. Out of the threats, protests, and censorship came the landmark Miracle case, the 1952 Supreme Court ruling that held films were covered under the First Amendment, which protected them from prior-restraint censorship. The ruling helped end the state-sanctioned film censorship regime that had existed in America for decades.

“It was smart to stop ‘Mohammad, Messenger of God’ when the guns were cocked, but it wasn’t right to do so,” wrote Roger Rosenblatt in 1977. “And it isn’t right now to take an industry to task for behaving as if the world isn’t run by kidnappers.” Likewise, it was probably smart for Sony to cancel "The Interview’s" premiere. Theaters stood to lose a great deal of money if moviegoers stayed away, and Sony could have been held liable had an attack occurred.

But it wasn't right for Sony executives to yank the film. Fortunately, they still have a chance to transform this from a moment of capitulation to a show of strength. Sony executives are contemplating an online release for the film, which would not only ensure it is seen by a much larger audience, but would demonstrate the limits of this type of terroristic threat. Such a move would echo the actions of Sony’s predecessors who, when faced with threats to limit free expression, used the moment to assert and expand their rights even more.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report