Do recent efforts to pressure ABC to cancel or edit its docudrama The Path to 9/11 amount to censorship?

The network responded to criticism from Democrats, including several Senate leaders and former Clinton administration officials, by editing disputed scenes in the film, and by adding a disclaimer that what was originally billed as “based on the 9/11 Commission Report” is more accurately a “docudrama” with significant embellishments. Even so, the five-hour film (which aired without commercials, interrupted only by a 20-minute address from the President), is meeting with outrage from those who argue it diverges from the Commission’s report in a pattern of partisan bias aimed at promoting Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections. Democrats protest that the film exaggerates (or invents) scenes that heap blame for 9/11 on Clinton-era mistakes, and echoes the Bush administration’s talking points suggesting that civil liberties and judicial oversight hinder the hunt for terrorists. Republicans, meanwhile, are aggressively promoting the film, while some raise cries of “censorship.”

Is It Censorship?
The conflict over The Path to 9/11 reached fever pitch on September 7th, when Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate sent a letter to Disney (ABC’s parent company) CEO Robert Iger, urging him to consider the following:

The Communications Act of 1934 provides your network with a free broadcast license predicated on the fundamental understanding of your principle obligation to act as a trustee of the public airwaves in serving the public interest. Nowhere is this public interest obligation more apparent than in the duty of broadcasters to serve the civic needs of a democracy by promoting an open and accurate discussion of political ideas and events.

Some have called this argument a veiled threat to revoke the network’s broadcast license. If so, it is deplorable, and does indeed constitute censorship. No matter what party or issue, it is unacceptable for the government to meddle with the content of art and entertainment, or to use their influence to exert pressure that would have a predictable chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.

However, letters from former members of the Clinton cabinet, who claim their statements or actions are misrepresented by the film, as well as that sent by Senate Democrats, can be said to represent the protected speech of citizens; after all, elected officials do not waive their own First Amendment rights. If there is a threat implicit in their protests, it is more likely one of private litigation (for defamation, perhaps) than one of initiating government action to punish or silence critics (the textbook definition of censorship). After all, since the Democrats are the minority in Congress, they don’t even necessarily wield the clout to undertake such actions.

This is What Democracy Sounds Like
Some of the controversy is really just proof of a healthy democracy: petitions, op-eds, and letters from citizens concerned about a broadcast network’s responsibility to the truth — and an overarching responsibility to honor the lives of those who perished in the 9/11 attacks by not exploiting the tragedy for political gain. After all, The Path to 9/11 was initially marketed as “the story of exactly what happened,” though screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh now says some scenes were “improvised.” It’s important that viewers understand which of these they’re actually seeing.

We will not take up a fact-finding mission here. After all, the First Amendment protects speech, plain and simple, and does not insist that speech be true or morally palatable. If you are concerned about the historical accuracy of specific scenes in the film, you can consult The Washington Post, or ThinkProgress, or the incredibly comprehensive site, The Path Since 9/11. Note that these concerns don’t just come from disgruntled Democrats. Even American Airlines is accusing ABC of distorions of fact in the film, and is threatening legal action. There may also be an FEC investigation, based on campaign finance rules that bar “electioneering communications” such as “documentary films … referring to candidates” from the airwaves within 60 days of an election. This analysis considers Path to 9/11 in contrast to Fahrenheit 9/11.

Michael Moore’s film has been mentioned in more than a few articles, but keep in mind that his documentary was never aired on network tv, let alone during prime time on the anniversary of a national tragedy. A more apt comparison, as treated by blogger Glenn Greenwald, exists between the uproar over The Path to 9/11 and a 2003 CBS film about the Reagans, which was pulled from the network due to complaints from Republicans, including representatives in Congress. Ultimately, the film was screened on Showtime.

Inevitably, discussions of the film seem to be either effusively positive or dead-set in opposition, so an earnest middle-of-the-road-minded person looking for facts may feel assaulted by all the overblown rhetoric. The right-wing pundits have come out swinging (Sean Hannity called the Democrats’ effort “the greatest threat to free speech since the Sedition Act over 200 years ago”), and liberal bloggers have sought to expose a right-wing conspiracy behind the film. We hope that this discussion, however bitter and divided on partisan lines, still serves to inform and involve the public. We encourage you to seek out the facts for yourself.

We remain confident that the debate will find its resolution in the court of public opinion, or perhaps in a court of law. But it does not belong in the halls of Congress. Legislative action to punish the network, or proposals to enforce an “equal time” doctrine on the airwaves, are cause for concern. Regardless of party affiliation, representatives pushing these proposals need a refresher course in the First Amendment.