Note: This is purely an editorial. The story was already covered here.

Shortly after all five of the largest theater chains in the United States decided not to screen The Interview because of terrorist threats made by hackers, Sony made it official and pulled the film from its release schedule.

Our art is indirectly being dictated to us all the time. We’re lucky enough to live in a world where you can see free reproductions of artistic masterworks whenever you want via the Internet (if you have access); at the same time, there’s a lesser form of censorship happening constantly in Hollywood. Scripts get greenlit or they don’t. Films get huge budgets or they don’t. Films get shown on thousands of screens or they don’t. You’re being indirectly steered towards certain films all the time, unless you’re paying close attention and making the extra effort to read film sites and drive a little farther to see something smaller, like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (currently on 11 screens in the US). As Mark Harris pointed out earlier this week in his article “The Birdcage,” studios are only getting more risk averse, betting the same winning formulas will still net them the same financial rewards five years from now with their multi-year mapping of tentpole films. It’s a business. And it’s a business that makes a lot of artistic decisions to avoid the thing it fears the most: uncertainty.

But it’s also art distribution and by meeting terrorist demands, they’re crossing a dangerous line into the realm of censorship. Theater owners are frightened because their legal departments have warned them of a potential culpability if one of the terrorists carries out a violent act while the film screens in one of their theaters. That’s really difficult to ignore and it would be unfair to label the people who made this decision “pro-censorship.” Had none of this happened, The Interview would be opening a week from now and maybe no one would care (or they’d care about as much as they did about Neighbors or This Is The End). Don’t make the mistake of vilifying the people behind this decision as Nazis. What Sony and these theater owners are, are cowards.

Theater owners didn’t want to pull The Interview from theaters any more than they wanted to endanger the lives of their employees, customers, neighboring businesses, etc. But preventing violence is not something within their grasp. Hell, they can’t even stop people from texting or talking during their fucking movies. But more to the point, they can’t claim victory over a violence-free weekend at the movies for having pulled The Interview any more than they can claim that pulling the movie wards off tigers because there are none in sight.

So while theater owners aren’t malicious, art-hating ass holes (well…), they are cowards for succumbing to these threats. They didn’t allow their employees or customers the option to back the movie in a show of solidarity against people with an opposing viewpoint. They decided the situation was too scary to deal with, so they opted not to deal with it at all and in doing so, set a really dangerous precedent. Because you don’t have to like Seth Rogen or even care about this particular film to stand up for it. Drew at HitFix asked what might happen if a similar act threatened to shut down the new Star Wars or Avengers movie and I think that’s the simplest way most people are going to be able to get their head around this topic. For me, the freedom of assembly/speech argument was never more complicated than when I learned about the Nazi march through the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Skokie, IL in 1977. That case stuck with me after all these years because it was the first thing I’d been taught that challenged my then-uncomplicated notion of free speech. From that point on, it meant defending it for everyone, even the people spitting vile shit at you, because anyone can become marginalized and shut down if we start deciding who can say what, when. By those standards, this is a huge loss today. The bad guys shouted everyone else down, curbing the opposing viewpoint before they (or anyone) had a chance hear it in the first place.

There’s been a call for Sony to release the film online for free as a means of countering, but I’m not sure that fixes the problem. We already flinched. It’s something gun rights activists have refused to do after countless school shootings, but theater owners were only too willing to do because of the perceived strength of these hackers after the mess at Sony. I honestly don’t know where we go from here, but it’s a sad day for the art form that gave us this moment…