Comedy Central's cartoon hit South Park is famous for its shocking and offensive humor, targeted at subjects ranging from Queen Elizabeth to Scientology. The show's renowned satire takes an unapologetic attitude towards goring sacred cows, and fans have come to regard South Park's principled stance on free speech as sacred in and of itself. This week, however, Comedy Central created headlines around the world by censoring a portion of a South Park episode. The episode continued last week's plotline depicting Mohammed in a bear suit, which is considered blasphemous by some followers of Islam.
Comedy Central's usually laissez-faire approach to South Park was shaken by what seem to be thinly veiled death threats against the show's creators. In response to last week's episode, the addresses of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park's creators, were published on the website of a New York City-based group called Revolution Muslim. The Revolution Muslim posting also claimed that the creators would "probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh," the Dutch filmmaker killed in 2004 after the airing of his short film Submission, which explores themes of violence against Muslim women.
Written in the name of Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, the Revolution Muslim posting was careful to disavow the notion that it was threatening Parker and Stone for their expression:
"This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."
Despite this caveat, it's understandable that people would feel threatened by finding their home addresses published alongside references to someone who was murdered for engaging in similar expression. Comedy Central, in fact, was fearful enough to block and bleep out significant portions of Wednesday's episode.
This is highly unfortunate. Regardless of whether the posting on Revolution Muslim was or was not a credible threat of violence, Comedy Central's censorship shows that it is willing to acquiesce to those who prefer violence and intimidation to a peaceful exchange of ideas. In fact, Parker and Stone released a statement yesterday afternoon endorsing the episode as written. The statement also referenced the irony that their character "Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too."
Comedy Central's decision, while uncharacteristic, is sadly not entirely surprising given the current climate of fear created by many Islamic fundamentalists who consider their religion immune from criticism and threaten violent retaliation against those who engage in such criticism. Unfortunately, FIRE has witnessed first-hand the ramifications of such violent extremism in our fight against censorship on campus.
In 2006, FIRE responded to controversies over depictions of Mohammed at Century College in Minnesota, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That same year, New York University (NYU) censored the Objectivist Club's panel discussion addressing the controversial depictions of Mohammed first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The NYU administration prohibited the organization from displaying the cartoons, which when originally published had caused mass rioting by outraged Muslims in Europe. Students instead displayed blank easels. According to FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, who participated in the panel, "Those blank easels were a testament to campus repression and a climate of fear."
Most recently, Yale University Press removed images of Mohammed from author Jytte Klausen's book about the Danish newspaper controversy, The Cartoons That Shook the World, based on generalized fears of violent retribution in light of what Yale President Richard Levin called "the particular experiences worldwide associated with those cartoons."
FIRE has consistently condemned this type of censorship when inspired by fear, apathy, or a desire to avoid offending others. Those who wish to undermine the pluralism of our society employ a variety of tactics, and America's unique tradition of free speech is eroded whenever these tactics are successful.
Many scholars, students, and public figures, however, are standing up for their principles. Recently, Duke University Professor Gary Hull published the book Muhammad: The "Banned" Images, which prints the images censored by Yale University and many others. Last night on Comedy Central, Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart performed a humorous song telling Revolution Muslim to "Go Fuck Yourself." Professor Eugene Volokh, who teaches law at University of California, Los Angeles, criticized Comedy Central's decision in the Los Angeles Times by saying, "[t]he consequence of this position is that the thugs win and people have more incentive to be thugs. There are lots of people out there who would very much like to get certain kind of material removed, whether religious or political. The more they see others winning, the more they will be likely to do the same. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated."
Interestingly, Gawker.com is reporting that South Park fans have apparently engaged in their own response to the Revolution Muslim site, redirecting traffic to a different site that prominently features the Mohammed cartoon. Please note that FIRE does not approve of illegally disrupting the speech of others by hacking or any other means, but we note the fans' non-violent response and preference for humor over intimidation.
We hope that the public outcry over the posting on Revolution Muslim galvanizes students, professors, and citizens to continue exercising their right to discuss everything from Queen Elizabeth to Scientology to Mohammed.