In its 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 the resulting protests and threats of boycotts.
FOR THE RECORD: Threat to "South Park" creators: An article in Friday's Section A about the Comedy Central network's response to an online threat by radical Muslims made against "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone said a clip of an interview with Parker and Stone was posted on the website boingboing.com. The website's correct address is boingboing.net.
But this week, after an ominous threat from a radical Muslim website, the network that airs the program bleeped out all references to the prophet Muhammad in the second of two episodes set to feature the holy figure dressed in a bear costume. The incident provides the latest example that media conglomerates are still struggling to balance free speech with safety concerns and religious sensitivities, six years after Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was slain for making a film critical of Islamic society.
Comedy Central declined to comment on the latest 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 that executives "made a determination to alter the episode" without their approval and that the usual wrap-up speech from one character didn't mention Muhammad "but it got bleeped too."
The network may have thought it had no choice after revolutionmuslim.com, the website of a fringe group, delivered a grim warning about last week's episode, which depicted Muhammad dressed as a bear.
"We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up 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 original posting, which has been unavailable to some Web users since news of the item broke earlier this week. "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."
Experts say that in trying to forestall such threats, media companies may be setting dangerous precedents — a possibility underscored by the fact that "South Park" has strirred up a free-speech issue that, while dormant for years, has now exploded anew.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said that although he sympathizes with the predicament faced by Comedy Central, the network has potentially empowered other extremists by how it has chosen to handle the situation.
"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."
In 2005, an uproar over Muhammad cartoons in a Danish newspaper rocked Europe and the media industry worldwide, with many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, declining to publish the materials that some found offensive. One of the cartoons showed the prophet wearing a bomb as a turban that was about to explode. Many Muslims believe that Islamic teachings forbid showing images of Muhammad.
Revolution Muslim, the extremist group that issued the graphic warning, is a relatively small fringe organization based out of New York, said 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 last October during the 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 fundamentalist form of Islam.
The FBI was aware of the matter, but declined to comment.
The irony is that some of the group's postings could be construed as hate speech and therefore raise their own free-speech issues.
"This group definitely crosses the line, or is right on the line, in terms of 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."
The ADL has identified Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, the blogger who posted the warning about "South Park," as Zachary A. Chesser, a former student at George Mason University who lives in Virginia and has become more active with Revolution Muslim in the last several months.
On April 15, he wrote on one of his Twitter accounts: "May Allah kill Matt Stone and Trey Parker and burn them in Hell for all eternity. They insult our prophets Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses."
Later, he posted a clip from an interview of Stone and Parker with the website boingboing.com, in which the host asked if they feared that they would be bombed for showing a depiction of the prophet Muhammad on their show.
Al-Amrikee noted: "Perhaps they are not, perhaps they should be, only time will tell."
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights and advocacy group, called Revolution Muslim "an extreme fringe group that has absolutely no credibility within the Muslim community.
"In fact, most Muslims suspect they were set up only to make Muslims look bad," Hooper said. "We just have very deep suspicions. They say such outrageous, irresponsible things that it almost seems like they're doing it to smear Islam."
He said he was aware of the recent depiction on "South Park" of Muhammad in a bear suit, but said CAIR has not issued any formal statement about the incident because the group doesn't want to give the show any more attention.
"People are pretty tired of this whole ‘Let's insult the prophet Muhammad thing,'" he said.
Segal said that although he does not expect the warning by Revolution Muslim to stir the kind of mass protests that followed the Danish cartoon controversy, he said the group's rhetoric must be taken seriously.
"You don't know what crazy person is going to respond," he said. "This is in context of a relatively silly, funny show, but a threat is a threat."
For fans of "South Park," the controversy has a familiar air. The show has taken great relish in attacking anyone the creators deem ridiculous or self-important, with celebrities and religion serving as favorite targets. In 2006, longtime cast member Isaac Hayes quit after the series lampooned Scientology.
A group of New Zealand bishops was so offended by the show's depiction of the Virgin Mary that it sought unsuccessfully to have the program banned. But "South Park" has run into more serious problems when making light of Islamic strictures against showing Muhammad.
In 2006, Comedy Central censored the producers' plans to depict the prophet in the episodes known as "Cartoon Wars."
Co-creator Stone, in an interview with boingboing
.com, chided his employers in that case. "It's just sad," he said.
He also noted that paradoxically, the network continued to run an episode from an earlier season in which Muhammad is not only shown but speaks, along with Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha and other religious figures. "It was before the Danish cartoon controversy, so it somehow is fine," Stone said. "After that," he said, network self-censorship was "the new normal."
Scott Glover contributed to this report.