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Hollywood Vs. Pyongyang: Shelved Film Sparks Free-Speech Skirmish In U.S.

A billboard promoting the movie "The Interview," before Sony decided to pull the movie from distribution.
A billboard promoting the movie "The Interview," before Sony decided to pull the movie from distribution.

It’s an unlikely starting point for a battle between free-speech rights and dictatorial regimes that suppress them: a Hollywood buddy comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen.

But Sony Pictures’ decision to halt distribution of "The Interview," a movie depicting a fictitious assassination plot against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has sparked a firestorm in the United States, including criticism from U.S. President Barack Obama.

"I wish [Sony] would have spoken to me first," Obama told a December 19 news conference. "I would have told them, 'Do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.'"

Sony pulled the plug on the film’s release after major U.S. cinema chains refused to screen the movie following threats of 9/11-style attacks made by hackers.

The FBI on December 19 accused the North Korean government of hacking Sony last month, a charge North Korea’s mission to the United Nations denied.

The hack resulted in the online leak of gossipy personal e-mails between Hollywood celebrities and studio executives, as well as Sony employees’ Social Security numbers and salary data.

But beyond this disturbing privacy breach, capitulation by Sony and the movie theaters to the threats could encourage authoritarian governments who seek to shut down creative works they find offensive, critics say.

"We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States," Obama said, adding that he believes Sony “made a mistake” in not releasing the film.

"Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like, or news reports that they don't like," Obama added.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

A self-styled group calling itself Guardians of Peace took credit for the cyberattack and sent an e-mail blast to reporters on December 16, warning: "Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time."

Sony’s announced a day later that it would not distribute “The Interview” after the top five movie theater chains in the United States announced they would not screen the film.

“We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public,” Sony said in a December 17 statement.

Obama said in an interview with ABC News the same day that the United States sees "no credible evidence" of a "serious threat to theaters."

In an interview following Obama’s December 19 criticism of Sony’s decision to halt the film’s circulation, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton denied that the company had "caved" to hackers.

"We do not own movie theaters. We cannot determine whether or not a movie will be played in movie theaters," Lynton said.

‘Pearl Harbor’ For Free Speech

Obama’s comments on the film’s canceled release followed days of withering criticism leveled at Sony by leading U.S. politicians, legal scholars, and Hollywood stars.

"By effectively yielding to aggressive acts of cyberterrorism by North Korea, that decision sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future," U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) said in a statement.

WATCH: The official trailer for "The Interview"

Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law professor, called it a "Pearl Harbor attack” on the guarantor of Americans’ right to free speech, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"The head of North Korea did something no American president can do: He censored an American film based on its content," the constitutional law expert said in a December 18 interview with Fox News. "And if you can censor a film by hacking, what happens when 'The New York Times,' 'The Washington Post,' or Fox News does something that disturbs North Korea? Or Iran?"

He called the attack and its aftermath “the beginning of a cyberwar that can go on indefinitely and really place our First Amendment in danger."

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, tweeted an appeal to Sony and his 1.6 million followers, asking the company to “fight” and not “cave” to the threats by releasing the film online for free.

Top Hollywood players like actor George Clooney and director Judd Apatow joined the fight, as well.

"We’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have. This affects not just movies; this affects every part of business that we have," Clooney told the U.S. entertainment news publication "Deadline" in an interview. "You have someone threaten to blow up buildings, and all of a sudden everybody has to bow down."

Apatow said on Twitter that, unlike in North Korea, “in our country we are allowed to have this debate about free speech."

"If they tell us to stop having this debate, what will we do?" Apatow said

Clooney told “Deadline” that he circulated a petition condemning the cyberattack to top entertainment industry heads but that no one would sign due to possible fears that their companies could be -- or already have been -- targeted by hackers as well.

Unlikely To Budge

Romney is not alone in suggesting that Sony release the movie online or through video-on-demand. Numerous analysts have suggested that allowing people to watch it through their computers or televisions would effectively neutralize the threat to movie theaters.

Sony, however, appears unlikely to budge.

"Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film," a studio spokesperson told "Deadline."

The group that took credit for the hack warned Sony in an e-mail not to release the movie "in any form."

Nevertheless, the scene in the film in which the character of Kim Jong Un is assassinated has been leaked widely on the Internet. It shows a rocket hitting Kim's helicopter as a slowed-down version of American pop star Katy Perry's song "Firework" plays.

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