You don't have to like the Comedy Central animated staple "South Park" to appreciate its role in the parody world. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been equal opportunity social critics for over a decade and 201 shows, overstepping bounds of decency on a weekly basis. They are to present-day TV what Lenny Bruce was to standup comedy a half-century ago.
There's never been an indication that Parker and Stone pull their punches with anyone, and everyone's fair game. Yet last week, on the heels of an implicit threat on a radical Islamist website, Comedy Central once again censored portions of the show to prevent depictions of images of the Prophet Mohammed. This despite the fact that he is but one of many religious figures (not to mention world leaders, entertainment icons, and the like) parodied on "South Park."
Threats and actual violence from Islamists have ensued in the past from satirical displays of Mohammed both here and abroad. A Dutch film dirctor, Theo Van Gogh, was killed in 2004 shortly after release of his short film "Submission," about the status of women in Islam. Danish cartoonists have been in fear since the 2005 publication of cartoons including Mohammed.
The threat of violence has spilled over and morphed into self-censorship, exactly the goal sought by radicals. Yale University Press excluded the Danish cartoons and others from a scholarly book entitled, "Cartoons That Shook the World," out of fear of reprisal. And of course, Comedy Central, owned by Viacom, has on two separate occasions now edited "South Park" episodes based on radical reactions and threats of retribution.
Those from all sane points on the political spectrum have stood up for the rights of Parker and Stone to lampoon whomever they desire. Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris is stepping to the plate by promoting an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" on May 20. Even Bart Simpson took up the cause this week, writing on the school blackboard, "South Park-We'd stand beside you if we weren't so scared."
The surest way to cause democracy to atrophy is by attacking free speech. Satire and parody are essential elements of any free democracy. We support Parker and Stone in their right to depict whoever they want, whenever they want.