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My North Korean Christmas Present

The Grinch did not steal my Christmas after all. I not only watched “The Interview,” despite the efforts of Kim Jong Un's minions, but also received a spectacular present in the form of a massive show of support for the First Amendment.

Debates about the scope and limits of free speech usually involve some combination of lawyers, judges and journalists. I have been part of that debate since I entered journalism school 40 years ago. It is why I believe so strongly that the Supreme Court was correct in its Citizens United decision striking down limits on political speech by corporations and unions. In America, I wondered, how can it ever be illegal to take out an advertisement that simply says “Vote for Joe?”

Most citizens seemed detached from this debate, or driven more by political loyalties – with Democrats opposing Citizens United and Republicans favoring it – than by any overriding feeling that more speech is almost always better than less speech. I figured, until now, that most Americans take their First Amendment rights for granted, and I did not find this surprising. Unless it impacts our daily life, most of us have other things to worry about.

But that was before North Korea's Supreme Leader attacked Sony Pictures for making “The Interview,” and before Sony briefly decided to cancel the film's Christmas Day release once major theater chains bent to threats of violence by refusing to screen it.

There was a popular outcry, from President Obama (who is no fan of Citizens United) down to ordinary citizens, that this amounted to a surrender of our valued freedoms to a foreign despot. Sony lined up 331 mostly small and independent theaters to run the film over the Christmas holiday weekend, and it also arranged for groundbreaking online distribution through Google Play and Google's affiliate YouTube, as well as Microsoft's Xbox platform, Sony's own PlayStation gaming network and a dedicated website. Apple's iTunes store belatedly joined the party on Sunday.

By the end of the weekend Sony reported 2 million paid downloads, with revenue of $15 million, plus a theatrical box office of $2.8 million. The sum is only around half of what the film might reasonably have grossed had it opened on perhaps 2,000 screens in the major theater chains, and it is far from the roughly $80 million that it has cost Sony to make and market “The Interview.” But it certainly proved a point. Actually, it proved several points.

One, which the major theater chains will hate, is that big-budget pictures do not necessarily need the theaters anymore, though the theaters are not yet irrelevant. Given enough publicity, audiences can find their way to a picture online. “The Interview” has not even been officially released overseas – though bootleg copies are, as usual, circulating freely in China and elsewhere – and its ultimate sales may approach what it would have grossed in the theaters. Remember that studios only keep about half of the revenue from ticket sales, anyway. We don't know what kind of a deal Sony made with Google, Microsoft and Apple, or if that deal is a model for others that will lack the special circumstance of responding to a foreign cyberattack, but the bottom line is that direct-to-video release is not just for niche independent films and quick-and-dirty animated sequels anymore.

Another lesson is that our commitment to free expression, and the manner in which we balance the reporting of fact against the protection of privacy, is virtually unique. It is not just us against the dangerously mad regime of North Korea, or the state-led chorus that passes for media in places like China and Russia. Britain has its Official Secrets Act, Europe has its newly described “right to be forgotten” and even Canada grants a copyright to the government for the documents it generates on the public's dime, in contrast to the U.S. government, whose material is either classified or otherwise in the public domain. The First Amendment is an absolute ban on laws that restrict freedom of religion, or of speech, or of the press. Nobody has it except us.

The final, most valuable lesson of all – the gift Kim Jong Un gave me this Christmas – is that Americans know what they have, and they care. From ordinary citizens who flocked to sold-out movie houses to make a point, to the executives at Google and Microsoft (and eventually Apple) who opted to stream the film even though they knew it would invite cyber-retaliation – the gaming networks at Microsoft and Sony were promptly attacked – we defend the free flow of information in a way that nobody else really even attempts.

I think a lot of Americans see through the politics of labels like “dark money” and of IRS attacks on non-profit organizations that engage in public debate, and they recognize attempts to muffle and suppress points of view that the attackers find distasteful. Rather than counter the speech with more speech, opponents seek to demonize the speakers. Do you wonder why the vitriol heaped on Citizens United, the Koch brothers and others seem to accomplish so little politically? It's not that people are unaware; it is because they actually support the rights of conservatives like the Kochs, or liberals like filmmaker Michael Moore, to put whatever they want to say out there where we can listen or not, as we choose. If a corporation wants to finance Moore's next attack on capitalism, that would be fine. Odd, but fine.

It turned out to be a wonderful Jewish Christmas. I spent my day with friends and family and my evening watching “The Interview.” I got around to having Chinese food two days later. I hope yours was just as excellent, and that the coming year will be even better. Have a happy and safe holiday.

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