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Censoring of 'South Park' episode underscores struggle to balance free speech and religious sensitivities

In its run of 200 shows, the irreverent animated program “South Park” has mercilessly satirized Christianity, Buddhism, Scientology, the blind and disabled, gay people, Hollywood celebrities and politicians of all persuasions, weathering repeated protests and threats of boycotts. But this week, after an ominous warning from a radical Muslim website, the network that airs the program bleeped out all references to the Prophet Muhammad in the second part of a two-episode storyline that featured the holy figure dressed up like a bear.

In episode 201, which aired Wednesday night, Comedy Central covered the character with a block that said “censored" and bleeped out audio apparently referring Muhammad. 

Many Muslims consider visual representations of Muhammad offensive.

The incident provides the latest example of how media conglomerates are still struggling to balance free speech with safety concerns and religious sensitivities, six years after Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot to death for making a film critical of Islamic society.

Comedy Central declined to comment on the incident. But “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone clearly disagreed with their bosses’ handling of the situation. A statement posted on their website said executives “made a determination to alter the episode” without their approval and noted that the usual wrap-up speech from one character didn’t mention Muhammad “but it got bleeped too.”

The network may have felt it had no choice after revolutionmuslim.com, the website of a fringe group, delivered a grim warning about the previous week’s episode, which seemed to depict Muhammad dressed as a bear. “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably windup like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show," the posting said. A photo of Van Gogh’s body lying in the street was included with the posting. "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

Revolution Muslim, the extremist group that issued the graphic warning, is a relatively small fringe organization based out of New York, according to Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

The organization, which formed in 2007 and includes about a dozen members, is mostly known for posting inflammatory and often threatening comments on its website, including a poem in October during Jewish High Holy Days asking God to kill all the Jews. Its members also stage protests in front of New York mosques, advocating a more fundamental form of Islam.

“This group definitely crosses the line, or is right on the line, in terms what is acceptable speech,” Segal said. “There is no direct link between this group and violence yet. But by posting this type of information, you never know who is going to take it seriously.”

Still, legal experts said the reaction by Comedy Central may set a dangerous precedent. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said that while he sympathizes with the predicament faced by the network, it has potentially empowered other extremists with its actions. “The consequence of this position is that the thugs win and people have more incentive to be thugs,” said Volokh, who teaches free speech and religious freedom law. “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.”

-- Scott Collins and Matea Gold

Photo: Tom Cruise was satirized on this week's "South Park." Credit:http://www.southparkstudios.com/

Comments () | Archives (60)

This is an absolute outrage. The fact that a Muslim extremist group can dictate what material is shown on an American television program is appalling. If the members of this group have a problem with South Park than change the channel. This kind of b.s. should not be tolerated by our government. These idiots need to be rounded up and deported. South Park did not go to far the extremists did.

After reading this... For the first time in my life i never thought i would say this but im ashamed of being an american.... How can this be? I literally still dont believe this happened.

Thanks a lot, Capitulation Central! You have emboldened terrorists and made America less safe for democracy and freedom.

I wonder if the Chicken Little of self-appointed 'hate-group' watchdogs, The Southern Poverty Law Center's Mark Potok, will be all over MSNBC tonight denouncing these death threats from American Muslims? Probably not, he's too busy imagining new ways to liken Tea Party protesters to Tim McVeigh.

'Muhammed' is the new 'Voldemort'.

As a Muslim American I would encourage the authorities to track down the individuals responsible for the posting and charge them criminally.

Making death threats is not free speech. There is nothing remotely Islamic about defending the "honor" of Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him) by not-so-subtly calling for the creators of South Park to be killed.

While I have not seen the episode and would encourage MSM orgs to respect the sensitivities of Muslims. These so-called Muslims are doing a dis service to the 99.9% of Muslims living in America.

This "revolutionmuslim" website sounds like a false flag operation out of Langley. They have 12 members according to this article. But the media and stupid Comedy Central decided to make a mountain of a molehill. Most "fundamentalists" wouldn't be sitting around watching South Park to begin with, would they? And whoever wrote that this helps Muslim in absolutely no way is right. It doesn't.

Despite the caveat this radical group may have put on it, what they have done is indeed made a threat. Moreover, are we to respect their right to free speech while simultaneously squelching the same right for Parker and Stone? If I've got to choose, then I'm with the South Parker every day of the week and twice on Friday!

Surveil these loons to the nth degree and find something to prosecute them with. I'm sure there are those who think I'm being extreme, but if I've got to choose sides, then it's a no-brainer. I don't care about anyone's religious sensibility. Get over it. Respect our most cherished right, or pay dearly. I'm tired of religious apologists of all stripes.

I would like to see New Yorkers hold a Free Speech defense protest wherever these idiots hold their fundie rallies. Power in numbers! Show up in their face whenever and wherever they gather. Silence this nonsense!

As of yet, I have seen NO rational argument for the proposition that Islam is entitled to more protection against satirical comedy, even if it may be offensive to some, than any other religion-or any other group of any kind. To cravenly give in to threats or implied threats or even mere claims of offense is to put in place the building blocks of allowing ANY speech to, in effect, be censored just because a particular group does not like it.

That any American can even consider "debating" this question shows that people have lost sight of the nature of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not about protecting speech by those we agree with or statements everyone "likes"-it is also about protecting speech that some may disagree with or even be offended by.

I, for one, find even the thought that we would "debate" this appalling. NO ONE has the right to dictate to me that I shall not be allowed to see a satirical representation of Muhammed, or Jesus, or any OTHER religious figure simply because they might be "offended". And to those in groups who believe threats will stop me or those like me from freely expressing our views-you are wrong. You can kill me, and those who come after me, and those who come after them-but you cannot kill the belief that the right to speak freely-be it political, satirical or otherwise, is a right worth dying for.

Lol, if only they had watched the episode 201 they would've learned that Muhammad was not depicted wearing a bear suit and that it was really Santa pretending to be Muhammad in a bear suit.
Ignorant Radicals, what can you do about them?

What negotiations? Terrorists dictate terms, Comedy Central follows them, no negotiations necessary. If the DHS can't act upon these threats, then it's time to threaten back. Any time Muslims say something we don't like we should threaten random violence against Mosques and Muslim owned business.

I'd like to report a theft, someone stole Comedy Central's balls.

Religion (or any other fiction) deserves no immunity from ridicule.

Scott & Matea,

"The incident provides the latest example of how media conglomerates are still struggling to balance free speech with safety concerns and religious sensitivities"

Are you kidding me?

'balance free speech'?

It has nothing to do with balance and everything to do with the anti-Christian character of most of Hollywood, including you two bloggers.

How is it that South Park can mock Jesus with halo and all and when they "go after" Muhammad they put him in a bear costume? No less the liberal leaning PC cowards over at Comedy Central then go ahead and black out the bear costume but also eliminate the speech at the end of the episode.

You two guys are to embedded into the shallow Hollywood scene to even notice the double standards you all place on Christians and then reverently and literally bow down like your President to extremists in Islam.

Shame on you all.

"Censoring of 'South Park' episode underscores struggle to balance free speech and religious sensitivities"

No, it doesn't. It highlights the DEMENTIA and VIOLENCE of Islam.

Islam is a cult of hate - it needs to be banned in free societies. It has one goal: To enslave all of humanity.

I can't believe all these comments condemning Comedy Central for "censoring free speech." Their employees got death threats.

I can understand getting on Comedy Central's case if it was just a boycott, but this website hinted at the possibility Matt and Trey ending up dead in a street.

If you were in the position of Comedy Central, what would you do? Show the episode unedited and risk the lives of the two men who basically saved your network in its infancy?

I think the show carried just as much weight with the censorship as without. Bleeping out the "what we learned" speeches was brilliant.

200 and 201 were amazing pieces of television. They just showed how much South Park has matured from just kids swearing. It's the only show that's become more intelligent and edgy season by season.

Any news show or commentator that disagrees with Viacom's decision should run the images on their channel themselves. I strongly urge Fox News to do so. They probably won't, snce they no longer control the US military anymore.

this is a clever ploy to create controversy. notice how the situation went down. they are taking 2 events and linking them, but did Comedy Central really do it just because of that website or was it a different reason?

the most tragic part is that the Prophet Muhammad was a great guy. would you mock and satire a neighbor who always helped you and brought you brownies on holidays and helped you shovel your snow? you'd feel ashamed. that's the tragedy here. there's no shame in mocking great people.. and thats why south park fails..


a biography of Muhammad

shalom alachem..

Ye, I also heard that multiple other episodes that have already been aired have now been removed from the offical site.

As for the current, Its still cencored I belive.

One cool site to watch the other episodes that have been deleted is at South Park Episode

This whole situation has taught me that if you want something changed then violence is the answer.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are my heros.

Their comedy doesn't promote or protect any religion or political party or ideology at the expense of another. And by showing no agenda in their comedy, by making everything and everyone fair game -- they expose how gutless the rest of the Hollywood comedy community is, especially comics like Jon Stewart who pose as hard hitting satirists.

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