South Park Censorship Hurts Free Speech

Sean McGeer

South Park is probably one of the most bleeped shows on television, as the animated depictions of cynical, adult-minded fourth graders swear like drunken sailors in every episode.  However, there is something deeply unsettling about the most recent word to get bleeped—the name of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

In their recent 200th episode, South Park called back many of the jokes made in the 14 seasons of the show’s history.  It referenced Tom Cruise’s confused sexuality, gingers, and Barbara Streisand, but most poignantly it revisited a previous theme for the show—that of the forced censorship of Muhammad after repeated threats.

In the 10th season of South Park, they discussed the issue soon after the Danish cartoon depicting Muhammad wearing a turban containing a bomb raised ire in some sections of the Muslim community.  In the storyline, a two-parter called “Cartoon Wars I and II,” they discussed the Danish cartoon issue and the threats of terrorism arising from it, and what this would mean to the rights of free speech.  Ironically, Comedy Central, South Park’s network, refused to run an image of Muhammad, despite the creators’ insistence.  However, the censorship message was written in to the script and so was still humorous and made sense to viewers.

In the 200th episode, all the celebrities South Park has ever made fun of are on the warpath and want to get Muhammad and extract his power to not be made fun of.  It’s a good episode, full of cameos and remembrances, and is interesting due to its discussion of the censorship and free speech issue.  However, the issue does not get resolved—instead, we must wait until the next episode to see the conclusion.

In the week after its airing, a radical Muslim group at the website RevolutionMuslim.com posted a message stating that the episode “outright insulted” the prophet.  “We have to warn Matt and Trey [the creators of South Park] that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”  Theo van Gogh was a documentary filmmaker who was killed in 2004 by a radical Muslim for making a short film about instances of abuse of Muslim women.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone nonetheless delivered their episode to Comedy Central, at which point Comedy Central added additional bleeps throughout the show.  The usual bleeps covered the swear words, but any mention of Muhammad’s name was bleeped too.  The final speeches from Kyle, Jesus Christ and Santa Claus (all characters on the show) were also completely bleeped out.

According to a statement from Parker and Stone posted on SouthParkStudios.com, “Kyle’s customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn’t mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too.”  The episode was not allowed to rerun on broadcast television, nor was it allowed to be posted to SouthParkStudios.com.  Furthermore, the preceding episode was pulled and an episode from the fifth season where Muhammad appeared uncensored (before any controversy existed) was also pulled.

The most interesting aspect of this controversy is the degree of self-censorship that Parker and Stone engaged in up to that point.  There was never any image of Muhammad shown at any time.  At various times throughout the episode, he was drawn with a large CENSORED bar covering him, depicted in a U-Haul truck, and supposedly inside of a large cartoonish bear costume.

This is surprising, especially considering that this is a show that once broadcast the word “s—t” 162 times uncensored.  The implications are worrisome, and we can draw some meaning from the message of “Cartoon Wars,” where one of the characters states that you can’t give in to somebody just because he threatens you with violence.

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show faced the issue.  One cannot begrudge the network its right to censor what it wants—it is, after all, a commercial operation and they are the ones who are paying for the show in the first place.  They may do with it what they wish.  However, the gutlessness that they evidenced, and the blow against free speech that they have struck in this case is galling.

The irony in the controversy is palpable, particularly concerning that one of the people running Revolution Muslim lives in New York City.  His messages of hate and portended violence are protected under the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, yet he would deny these same rights to the creators of South Park.  And, while it is understandable to perhaps be taken aback by the idea of your prophet stuffed into a bear costume, it is much better than how South Park, Family Guy, and other animated shows have handled Jesus Christ, Moses, and other religious figures.

According to the Huffington Post, those at Revolution Muslim are unable to visit New York mosques due to their radical views.  This speaks positively about the religion as a whole.  However, these kinds of controversies serve only to hurt the position of the religion and not strengthen the cause.  As such, I would advise radicals of any belief to get a sense of humor.  You will be amply rewarded for it.