LOS ANGELES, April 21 (UPI) -- Energetic campaigns to slap down entertainment industry critics of war in Iraq may be contributing to an increasing level of political timidity in Hollywood.
Miramax Films has postponed the release of a military dark comedy "Buffalo Soldiers" for the fifth time. The first postponement was out of sensitivity for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, but the Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the latest delay was motivated by concern that the movie's "depiction of drug-dealing U.S. soldiers in 1989 West Germany would be as welcome as the Dixie Chicks in the Rose Garden."
The formerly best-selling country music trio has been subjected to economic retaliation because singer Natalie Maines told an audience they were ashamed to be from the same state as President George W. Bush, Texas. As the Chicks and other entertainers come in for harsh criticism, boycotts and even suggestions of a blacklist -- as payback for questioning the Bush administration's handling of Iraq -- the entertainment industry is taking note.
Rick Sands, Miramax's chief operating officer, told the Times the release date for "Buffalo Soldiers" was moved from May 9 to July 25 because "we don't want this film to be misinterpreted, and we want to be sensitive to the current situation in the world."
Director Gregor Jordan, who said he agreed with the decision, has personal experience with negative reaction to the movie -- someone at a Sundance Film Festival screening of was moved to throw a plastic bottle at him from the theater balcony.
Recent cases of retaliation against Bush critics are not, strictly speaking, First Amendment issues, said University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, a nationally recognized authority on the First Amendment.
"The First Amendment applies only to government," said Chemerinsky. "Not just Congress, but all government. If the Los Angeles City Council passed a law that said the Dixie Chicks and Susan Sarandon are not welcome to perform in Los Angeles, that would violate the first amendment."
However, Chemerinsky said those in the private sector are legally free to threaten the livelihood of war critics.
"What the framers had in mind was limiting the ability of the government to restrict speech," he said. "They weren't dealing with boycotts, or anything like that."
In recent weeks, private sector interests have freely exercised their freedom to slam war critics.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame canceled a 15th anniversary screening of "Bull Durham," rather than afford Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins the opportunity to use the occasion to make politically controversial comments.
ABC has been threatened with a network-wide boycott if it adds a new Janeane Garofalo comedy to its prime time schedule.
An Internet campaign is under way to pressure the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to strip Michael Moore of his Best Documentary Oscar, alleging that "Bowling for Columbine" is full of "invented facts" and "fabricated events" -- and does not qualify as a documentary under the Academy's rules.
A publicist for ABC told United Press International the network would not comment on the Garofalo story. The Academy's publicity department told UPI the Academy would not comment on the Moore story.
Has the sometimes harsh and threatening reaction to Garofalo, Maines, Moore, Robbins and Sarandon had a chilling effect -- causing others in the entertainment industry to hold their tongues?
"I hope that it doesn't have a chilling effect," said "The West Wing" creator-producer John Wells in an interview. "American democracy allows, and freedom of speech allows, for an open town square."
Wells said critics have as much right to slam celebrities as celebrities do to express unpopular or controversial views.
"("West Wing" star) Martin Sheen has been very vocal and we have been very supportive of his right to say it whenever and however he wishes," said Wells. "George Clooney is like a piñata at (Fox News') 'The O'Reilly Factor.' They have every right to do that, and George has every right to express his opinion.'"
Wells said he hoped the time would not come when TV writers and producers would be forced to allow public pressure to dictate viewpoint content, but he wouldn't be surprised if it does.
"That's part of the risk that you take by entering the public debate."
The Dixie Chicks -- Emily Robison and Martie Maguire -- have already apologized for Maines' remark, but to no apparent avail. The trio will provide their first extended public comments on the controversy this Friday in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer.
Jordan -- who said he intended for "Buffalo Soldiers" to be confrontational, not offensive -- found it disturbing that dissenters are called unpatriotic.
"People are afraid of even having an opinion," he said. "And if your opinion goes against what's considered the common interest, then you better keep your mouth shut."
Chemerinsky said America is not yet at the point where government censorship is a realistic prospect, but he said the impulse to punish political expression could spread beyond the private sector, given sufficient provocation.
"Free speech is inherently fragile," he said. "I don't think it's alarmist to suggest that we're in a time when there are systematic efforts to silence and punish dissenters. These are scary times with respect to freedom of speech. Hopefully, if Sept 11 remains a tragic isolated incident, I don't see us becoming more repressive, but if there's a wave of terrorist activity, then there's going to be a wave of repression -- including of speech."