“Sophomoric, gross, and unfunny,” decried Hal Boedeker of the Seattle Times, “Its chances for success die each time Kenny does,” he waxed oracular. “Carnivalesque,” reporter Ethan Thompson declared, imputing to “South Park” a brand of clever satire with a literary tradition.
South Park is equal parts offensive and sacrilegious. Its content repulses some and elicits uncomfortable laughter from others who don’t know whether to publicly condemn the racial rhetoric its creators so frequently employ or privately snicker at its irreligious themes. But in its smutty humor is the principle of free speech incarnate, the belief that all speech that does not actively encourage violence, no matter how profane or offensive, should be protected.
Comedy Central’s decision to censor South Park is antithetical to that very idea, and the argument that its decision was in the interest of safety despoils the spirit of free speech that protects all types of comedy, no matter how sophomoric, gross, or unfunny we deem it. South Park’s creators are no strangers to death threats and have offended every major world religion, ethnic identity, and sexual identity conceivable. They have surely been menaced by some radical fringe representing these groups.
The idea that free speech is only a right worth protecting when it is safe or convenient to do so is as dangerous as the threats of terrorism that the South Park creators face. To ignore that by substituting defense of that right with just a condemnation of violence is not only laughably impotent as a counter to terrorism, but also a legitimation of the threat itself. Indeed, the South Park controversy cast into stark light the conflict between terrorism and the freedoms that we in America hold dear, and in this case, terrorism prevailed.
Detractors of what may seem like a romanticized argument in favor of airing an offensive episode might point to the fact that people associated with the creators of the show were under threat, or that the possibility of dying for being a humorist is unfair. But these people miss the fact that the very exercise of free speech meets with danger—the danger that one will be oppressed by some influence, whether vigilante violence or state power. The moment when we are unwilling to protect the rights of our fellow because of possible violence against him or those around him, we sacrifice free speech as a right and relegate it to a privilege of convenience.
Similarly, the contention that humor’s right to free speech should not be protected but that news or some purely informational medium should enjoy that special protection is an unnecessary and specious privileging of one form of expression over another. Rights are indiscriminate and should not be subject to the weak claim that the work of a Pryor, Carlin, Wilde, or Maher is a lower form of speech than journalism. Much like other types of expression, there is valuable humor and humor that is less so—but all of it deserves to be protected.
Muslims should be offended that Matt Stone and Trey Parker would even dare to consider depicting Muhammad—it is blasphemous according to Islamic law. But taking offense is not the sole province of religion or religious persons, and South Park has committed egregious transgressions against people of various religious convictions, political beliefs, and identities. The fact that this offense is expressly prohibited by a group’s holy text should require delicacy and courtesy on the individual level—not an exception to our principles. Just as law should not supercede certain religious traditions, as laws in France threaten to do by forcing Muslim women not to wear burkas, religious sentiments should demand sensitivity from society, not coerce obedience through violence.
Derrick Asiedu ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.