The Volokh Conspiracy

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Thugs win again—movie theaters cancel showing of 'The Interview' following threats of terrorist attack


Dave, played by James Franco, and Aaron, played by Seth Rogen, in Columbia Pictures' "The Interview." (CTMG Inc. via Reuters)

Deadline Hollywood mentions several such theater chains. Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security stated that there was "no credible intelligence" that such threatened terrorist attacks would take place, but unsurprisingly, some chains are being extra cautious here.

I sympathize with the theaters' situation—they're in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they're rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there's only a small chance that they'll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.

But behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, extremist Islam generally or any other country or religion will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.

And the beauty of all this, from the perspective of those who want to suppress movies they dislike, is that they don't even actually have to bomb anything (something that's very risky). All they need to do is put out some well-anonymized threats, and they have a good chance of prevailing. To be sure, it helps if they can back up the threats with something (such as a successful hacking attack), but the threats might succeed even without that. If terrorist threats worked with "The Interview," even despite DHS's statements that there's no credible intelligence supporting a risk of actual violence, they might well work elsewhere as well. That, I think, is the lesson that many will take away.

I don't know what the answer is; as I said, I can see why the theaters wouldn't want to put themselves, their employees and their customers at risk here, even if the risk is small. And there's certainly no First Amendment problem with the theaters' doing this; these are private entities, who can choose to give in to the "heckler's veto" if they wish. It's a very unpleasant situation all around, and nothing good will come of it.