South Park, an animated show on Comedy Central, tests the boundaries of free speech on a regular basis. From depicting a beheaded Britney Spears to portraying live festive Christmas feces named Mr. Hankey, the show constantly offends every subset of society to provide social commentary on perceived injustices and logically flawed, but widely accepted, ideas.
Yet South Park’s recent 200th episode, which includes a depiction of the prophet Muhammad, may have finally crossed the line of what Comedy Central is willing to air. After the premiere of the first part of the two-part episode, in which the prophet Muhammad was depicted in a bear costume, the Islamic community expressed concerns about the next episode, that claimed to contain a full characterization of the alleged prophet Muhammad. The network, after numerous objections, decided to censor the second episode and did not allow it to air. Comedy Central made the right decision by choosing to protect the lives of its employees over maintaining free speech.
After the first episode aired, Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee wrote on his blog that the show “outright insulted” the prophet, adding: “We have to warn [the producers] that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show.” Though he claimed it was just a warning, not a threat, by comparing the producers of South Park to the Dutch filmmaker who was killed for his film criticizing Islam’s treatment of women, Al-Amrikee did indeed threaten the lives of the producers. In addition, radical group Revolution Muslim posted the addresses of Comedy Central’s offices on its website, thus endangering the employees of the network.
When considering what happened in the cases of the Danish cartoonist who is now in hiding after depicting the prophet Muhammad and van Gogh’s murder, the writers of South Park and the employees of Comedy Central were under especially salient and imminent threats from radical Islamic activists. Therefore, although the only sort of speech that should be fundamentally outlawed is hate speech—which this episode theoretically did not include—Comedy Central made the right decision in choosing not to further endanger its employees by airing the episode.
Although we agree that Comedy Central made the right choice in censoring itself, we hope that the media continues to fight for free speech. News channels in particular should be held to a higher standard of not acquiescing to threats, for their power to disperse information is particularly necessary.
Indeed, the bigger issue here is not Comedy Central’s decision but instead is the use of threats—grounded in religion or any other belief—to subdue another’s free speech. In a statement to the New York Times, South Park’s creators commented, “In the 14 years we’ve been doing ‘South Park’ we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind.” The repression of free speech due to threats of violence is regrettable and unjustified. Our hope is that South Park continues to provide satirical social commentaries and that the decision between safety and freedom should never have to be made again.