While buzz surrounding the release of “The Interview” may not have resulted from the movie’s merit, the cyber hack in response to its approaching release sparked a national conversation on freedom of speech in the face of a possible terrorist threat.
Recent international challenges to free speech in pop culture and in print were the topic of the International Institute’s Round Table on Thursday evening at the Michigan League.
The round table included Prof. Juan Cole, director for the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies; Daniel Herbert, associate professor of screen arts and culture; and Law Profs. Herzog and Steven Ratner.
Prof. Karla Mallette, director of the Center for European Studies and Islamic Studies Program, served as the moderator for the discussion and said the panel was held to consider recent challenges to freedom of speech, which she characterized as the “conceptual cornerstone of liberal society.”
To open, Mallette cited the recent controversy over “The Interview” and how its plot, which revolved around the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, resulted in a cyber attack on Sony Pictures.
“The movie essentially blew up in Sony’s hands, making Sony Pictures a target in one of the most successful cyber-terrorism campaigns on record,” Mallette said.
Herbert said he believed it was unlikely that “The Interview” would cause a domino effect in Hollywood and would not result in qualms among producers and filmmakers toward releasing similar movies. He said, however, the effect of the hack on Sony has been chilling.
“It’s not this chilling effect that concerns me most, but rather, the chilling effect that the Sony hackers could and likely will hack on the freedom of discretion of private individuals who work in a large institution,” Herbert said.
Ratner specializes in counter-terrorism, human rights and international law. He focused his discussion on the regulation of speech in international communities on the basis of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In his argument, Ratner said globally, court cases concerning free speech often result in restrictions on the speaker’s rights, unlike in the United States.
“The fact is that international human rights law and European human rights law gives the state a significant degree of discretion to prohibit certain forms of hate speech,” Ratner said. “It’s very different from what we’re used to in the United States, but it’s one that comes out of a tradition where the rest of the world sees it as retaliation to awful crimes.”
However, Ratner said the robust regulation and policing of free speech in some international communities is not always feasible and rationally warranted from the state.
“The state can’t just completely cut off free speech just because they’re advancing a legitimate goal,” Ratner said. “They have to do it in a method that’s proportional.”
LSA juniors Erica Dickinson and Fatima Chowdhury said they thought the event was important to be held at the University and realized that unregulated freedom of speech was difficult to come by in any modern state.
“There is no absolute freedom of speech anywhere in the world, but the U.S. comes closest,” Dickinson said.
Chowdhury said inclusion of the power of the Internet as a forum for free speech is a necessary segment in discussions of free speech both nationally and across countries.
“I think the Internet changes things. The Internet definitely changes things,” she said. “A lot of governments can track citizens and what they say and persecute them based on (the Internet), which they couldn’t do in the past.”
This makes international law more important, Dickinson said, when news stories or blog posts targeting international cultural groups become more accessible to those groups.
“If someone hears (appropriation) in America and someone hears (appropriation) in Germany, you’ve already involved two countries and that changes the game,” she said.