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Apr. 23 2010 - 4:35 pm | 1,826 views | 1 recommendation | 27 comments

‘South Park’: I’m with Kyle

Kyle Broflovski, a South Park character based ...The censorship of South Park’s 201st episode raises a few questions that neither Comedy Central nor the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have been willing to clarify.

Last week, after the first part of a two-part episode, Parker and Stone received a muddleheaded threat from some group nobody had ever heard of before, the issue in question being the show’s oblique depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. (The character was obscured in some cleverly cheesy ways, which itself seemed to be a commentary on the flap the show raised with a previous depiction of Muhammad in 2006. It was that kind of episode.) When the second part aired this week, even the character’s name was bleeped. It’s unclear how much of the additional censorship was Parker and Stone’s doing, and how much was Comedy Central’s. Comedy Central isn’t saying, and Parker and Stone’s statements are ambiguous. A graphic posted in place of episode 201 on the South Park website suggests that Parker and Stone exercised a degree of self-censorship and delivered a version with some audio bleeps:

But a separate statement posted elsewhere on the site suggests that all the bleeps were Comedy Central’s:

In the 14 years we’ve been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind.  We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode.  It wasn’t some meta-joke on our part.  Comedy Central added the bleeps.

This may just be imprecise wording by Parker and Stone, but everybody’s clammed up so there’s no way to tell.

What nobody seems to be disputing, though, is that the decision to bleep the entire closing speech by character Kyle Broflovski, the sanest 9-year-old on television, was all Comedy Central’s. In so doing the network slipped unambiguously into the realm of craven, dumbass cowardice. According to Parker and Stone the speech was “about intimidation and fear,” and “didn’t mention Muhammad at all.” At which point the only theoretical argument for censorship, however thin it may be — the argument that the mere mention of Muhammad’s name is so incendiary it constitutes a clear and present danger — goes right up in smoke, and you’re left with the sickening conclusion that the network is so chickenhearted it has to run and hide from the very idea that intimidation is bad, mmkay. This would be a hilarious irony — the kind South Park has trafficked in successfully for 14 years — if it weren’t so sad and awful. As my True/Slant colleague David Knowles has pointed out, public figures as diverse as Bill O’Reilly and Andrew Sullivan are backing Stone and Parker. So am I. You should too.


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Barol,

    Of all of the “censorship” issues out in the world, I have to say that this has to be the one least importance. Is Comedy Central over reacting, could be. What is at stake though, South Park is just a cartoon. It was not making some big political or philosophical point. They were just tweaking some the noses. Besides, it is not like anybody didn’t know who or what was being bleeped out (like during Mr. Stewart’s recent commentary on Fox News).

    Much ado about, if not about nothing, certainly about not much of anything.

    • collapse expand

      Yep, sorry, we disagree on this one. The fact that it’s “just a cartoon” couldn’t be less relevant. The issue is a big corporation caving to political intimidation from a fringe group with an interest in stifling free speech — everybody’s free speech. Yours and mine too. The medium doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if it was over drawings on a wall.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Mr. Barol,

        I believe that missed my point. My point was that cartoons are not worth protecting from censorship. I am not focused on the medium but the message and perspective. I have two points:

        1) In the big, broad world, there are real, big, serious issues of censorship. There are journalists (and cartoonists) who face intimidation, harassment, and even death. On that scale, a couple of bleeps on an animated cartoon are nothing. We have to keep things in perspective.

        2) What message was censored. Journalists are censored for speaking about corruption, crime, and human rights abuses. Journalists in Mexico face intimidation from drug gangs. They have an important message to get out. What message was South Park getting out? That they have the right to tweak the nose of whomever they please, including the Prophet Muhammad. This is not an important message in any medium.

        I agree that Comedy Central was stupid to do what they did. No one every died from a prayer. That said, I am just not going myself all worked about the tiny bit censorship of a silly cartoon with a inconsequential message.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    You’ve made my point for me:

    “In the big, broad world, there are real, big, serious issues of censorship. There are journalists (and cartoonists) who face intimidation, harassment, and even death.”

    Yes. I agree. Parker and Stone are two of them. They may not have faced or be facing death — who knows? I hope not. But harassment and intimidation? Yes.

  3. collapse expand

    I am with you Bill, as any sane person would be.

    DavidLA, nobody is asking you to get all worked up about this, but there is the principal at stake here. And really the principal is the message, especially when the exception is made on behalf of this one group, which is an extreme and tiny minority.

    It is like censoring Charlie Chaplin in the Dictator for offending Hitler.

    Its the fact that these silly people can get their way that is so damaging. Freedom of speech was in better shape 70 years ago than today, thanks to Viacom.

    • collapse expand

      Mr. Clifford,

      That is an interesting example. First, United Artists did not want Mr. Chaplin to make the film, or at least finish it. They were terrified of German response. Since Mr. Chaplin financed the film himself, he did not have to comply. Further, having spent one and a half million of his own dollars, it would have bankrupted him not to finish. Second, he film had an important message, one that was risky for him to send.

      Is this not exactly my point? Mr. Chaplin’s gutsy movie had an important message that needed to get out. I cannot say the same for Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone’s cartoon. Further, had Mr. Chaplin succumb to the pressure from United Artists and not released the film, he would have faced financial ruin. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone lost not a cent. Finally, The Great Dictator was completely and totally an anti-Fascist film, it could not be edited down to something inoffensive. Every single bit of it was offensive to Fascism. This meant he had but two choices, abandon the film and release it. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone merely had a couple of words bleeped out.

      As I noted earlier to Mr. Barol, it is a question of “message and perspective”. Episode 201 had nothing important to say and suffered the tiniest of censorships.

      Was this an injustice? Sure. It was a tiny one that the two millionaires who suffered it can easily survive. I will conserve my outrage and energy for those cases truly deserving, where something important is at stake and the victims are need my support.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Very well, davidlosangeles. When you write something that offends some ultra right wing whack job, I won’t defend your right to say it unless I agree with the medium.

        Honestly, I think you missed the point of Comedy Central’s people. Some jerk who lives in his mom’s basement by the name of Zach Chesser, who purports to speak for some Jihadist group has openly threatened the authors of South Park and Comedy Central of suffering the same fate as that of Theo Van Gogh. In case you didn’t know, Theo was murdered for making a film called “Submission” that some radical Jihadists got extremely agitated over.

        Now to put this in perspective, Van Gogh was a generally obnoxious person. He didn’t hold back much in the way of his speech. He insulted Jews over issues relating to the Holocaust. He generally despised all religion. However, his right to be an obnoxious idiot was still his right –until Mohammed Bouyeri murdered him in broad daylight.

        This threat does appear to be real. Anyone who perpetrates this kind of threat deserves to be prosecuted for threatening speech. We have done no less for anti-abortionist radicals who posted public hit lists.

        If you won’t stand up against the people who perpetrate this sort of uncivil, threatening speech, why should anyone stand up for your miserable opinions?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Hello jake brodsky,

          You wrote:”When you write something that offends some ultra right wing whack job, I won’t defend your right to say it unless I agree with the medium.”

          I wrote:”I am not focused on the medium but the message and perspective”.

          You wrote:”If you won’t stand up against the people who perpetrate this sort of uncivil, threatening speech, why should anyone stand up for your miserable opinions?”

          I agree and I did not say otherwise. The topic of discuss was not the nature of the threat from “Muslim Revolution” but the response to that threat by Viacom. Viacom censored Episode 201, which I clearly stated was an un-necessary act of censorship.

          What I said, repeatedly, was that from the big picture of world-wide censorship, this is BFD.

          In regards to the threat itself, that is a law enforcement issue. This is what the NYTimes wrote:

          “Asked if the F.B.I. was investigating [the threat], Special Agent Richard Kolko, an F.B.I. spokesman in New York, said in a phone interview that the bureau did not “monitor people or groups, we investigate criminal activity.”

          Mr. Kolko said: “The F.B.I. will investigate threats that occur over the Internet to determine if there is a potential for the threat to be carried out. However, in most cases these are First Amendment issues, and the F.B.I. vigorously defends people’s First Amendment rights.”

          Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said the New York Police Department was “aware of the threat, and we’ve looked at it.”

          He added, “We don’t think that this threat, as is currently assessed, rises to a crime right now.”

          http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/23/arts/television/23park.html

          That said, the threat itself is an entirely different question from the censorship practiced by Viacom.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Wow, I don’t even know how to respond to this. I am actively searching and awaiting the bleeped speech of Kyle’s and stumbled upon this very poignant article. I happily read it only to be truly shaken to my core to see a commenter actually say that cartoons aren’t worth protecting from censorship. Everything is worth that or nothing is. That’s freedom of speech. And the fact is that South Park was and consistently is making huge political commentary that is smarter than most live action shows. I look forward to this being resolved.

    • collapse expand

      Hello Amanda Kay Meuwissen,

      You did not read the comments completely or you would not have written:”I happily read it only to be truly shaken to my core to see a commenter actually say that cartoons aren’t worth protecting from censorship.”

      As I noted this is a question of “message and perspective”. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone had no important message to pass on and suffered the tiniest of censorship (a couple of tiny bleeps). It is not a question of the medium (a cartoon) it is the message that the cartoon delivers (nothing of too much importance). Further, the scale of the censorship was minuscule.

      In contrast, there are journalists and, yes, cartoonists who are thrown in jail, are beaten, and even killed for trying to bring important messages to the people. In Mexico, Iraq, Iran, Russia and similar places men and women have cannot publish important news because of government interference. One that scale, this is nothing.

      In any event, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone have plenty of resources to defend themselves, they are hardly in need any assistance from me – or you.

      So I am very willing to defend even a cartoon, if that cartoon has something worth hearing and which faces real censorship.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Hey buddy, you are way off base here man. Let me quote you real fast.

        “Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone had no important message to pass on and suffered the tiniest of censorship (a couple of tiny bleeps). ”

        Now if you actually watched the episode you would realize there are two minutes at the end that were straight “bleeped” that contained the message they were going for.

        For you to say a couple of tiny bleeps is rediculous. They bleeped out an entire speech by 3 characters at the end. I just wanted to point that out, cause you are really digging yourself in a hole by posting the quote i put above in every post on this site about south park.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Hello bxdogg,

          You wrote:”Now if you actually watched the episode you would realize there are two minutes at the end that were straight “bleeped” that contained the message they were going for.”

          Yet you know exactly what they said and the message being delivered.

          Once again, I am not contesting that this was act of censorship, one which Viacom, as the company that pays for the show and broadcasts the show over its facilities, has every right to do.

          Once again, I say, on the world scale of acts of censorship, both in terms of the degree of censorship and the importance of the message being censored, this is small potatoes.

          Once again, this is what I choose for myself. If others want to get all hot and bothered about this minor and, IMO, unimportant act of censorship, got for it, knock yourself out.

          My only request is that people should read what I actually wrote, not what they think I wrote.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    I’m glad that there is someone to tell me what speech is worth defending and what speech isnt worth defending. That seems like it would be a hard choice for me to make. Thankfully we have Comedy Central and davidlosangeles to help out.

    • collapse expand

      Hello smapdi,

      It is a question resource management. Imagine that you could correct one unjust case of censorship, how would you choose which case to repair? I would choose a case where the message being censored was important and the victim could not defend his or her self. The case of Episode 201 would not get very high on my stack.

      Consider an alternative. Mr. Horgan has brought up a case of censorship.

      http://trueslant.com/colinhorgan/2010/04/23/ontario-sex-education-protest/#comment-835

      The Provincial authorities in Ontario Canada had proposed a sex education that taught children that are gay people in the world. There was a strong reaction from certain religious groups who objected to letting children know of the existence of gay people. It was thought that this was part of the “militant homosexual agenda”. So the authorities have pulled back this curriculum.

      Now I would suggest that of the two cases of unjustified censorship, the latter is more important than the former, more worthy of effort, using the criteria I identified above. It has more important consequences, the severity of the censorship was much greater, and there are no wealthy and famous victims who are quite able to take care of themselves.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    I find that I’m agreeing with mr d from la.

    We have censorship every day in the States though it’s more usually less visible than this. And really, taking the example of ‘The Daily Show’, a satirical program intended for adults, when Jon Stewart takes on Fox News, Comedy Central censors the use of the word ‘fuck’. We also put up with pixilated body parts on news programs. We have been forbidden for years to see the result of our bombing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s censorship that actually means something. Why is this different? Because it’s ‘South Park’?

    That I find it to be a tame little comedy with an unaccountably right-wing slant is neither here nor there. But I would agree that there are many other instances of censorship far more damaging than this. Haven’t heard this kind of outrage about the way the fundies have gone after Terrance McNally’s play ‘Corpus Christi’. That too included death threats. Of course we shouldn’t be censoring cartoons, we shouldn’t be censoring anything, but I do find it peculiar that it is this instance that gets everyone upset.

    • collapse expand

      Hello wister,

      Thank you for your posting. The two part episode (200 and 201) brought together famous characters satirized on previous episodes and a grand collective poke in the eye. The Prophet Muhammad is brought to South Park in a U-Haul trailer and dressed in bear outfit in a round-about acknowledgment of and satirization of the fact that the depiction of him is forbidden in Islam. Funny? Maybe. Socially or political important? No. Did everybody know exactly who was in the trailer and the bears suit and thus got the point? Yes. Are the folks at Viacom a bunch of pussies? Sure. Does “Muslim Revolution” need to get a life. You betcha. Am I going to worry about it. No.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    The very thought that a reasonably literate person like davidlosangeles believes that a “message and perspective” test should replace a couple centuries worth of well-settled Supreme Court law, shakes me to my core, and rekindles my joy that Obama (despite his many faults) will be appointing the next Supreme Court justice.

    The Court has rejected content based limitations on speech EVERY time it has been attempted. (There are certain categories that have been deemed “not protected:” fighting words, obscenity, libel)

    That said, I’m not sure this is a real “free speech” issue; I think it’s contract law, and the blank screen at the South Park site bolsters that argument. Not a true free speech issue because there’s no state action here. You’ve got Parker and Stone and Viacom as parties to a private contract, negotiated by teams of well paid attorneys.

    A while back, Parker and Stone entered into an agreement with Viacom. According to the agreement, Parker and Stone got lots and lots and lots of money and Viacom got the right to broadcast the program, and apparently, the right to edit it as they see fit. Parker and Stone could have negotiated that right out of the deal, or in the alternative, not taken the deal.

    Parker and Stone chose lots and lots and lots of money. Let’s not forget that.

    Everyone has choices, decisions and deals to make, every single day. If a principal is important to you, then DON’T SELL IT OUT!!!

    • collapse expand

      Hello Bob Falk,

      You are quite correct that the SCOTUS has generally ruled against government censorship, even in cases of obsenity (People v. Larry Flynt). However, this is not a case of *government censorship*, which is what the SCOTUS has ruled on. No government official or body ordered the bleeping of Episode 201. This is not a first amendment issue.

      This is, as you rightly point out, a contractual dispute between two business partners. Viacom has, it would seem, a contractual right to edit Mr. Parker & Mr. Stones work. They don’t like the Viacom exercised that right.

      My point about the “message and perspective” is not a legal test of first amendment rights but rather my personal standard for which fights against censorship I am willing support and which to pass on. In this world, you have to choose your fights, you cannot fight them all.

      A contractual dispute between two millionaire cartoonists and billion dollar communications giant about a couple of bleeps in 20 minute cartoon about nothing of any political or social significance does not rise to the necessary level of importance for me personally. If others want to get a sweat up about it, knock yourselves out. I just think that there bigger, more important issues out there…like where governments shut down newspapers or as wister points out, a play being attacked like Terrance McNally’s play ‘Corpus Christi’ or as Mr. Horgan points out attacks on education.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Hi davidlosangeles,

        OK, I guess if we’re going to pick and choose (allocate our resources) in the war on repression, I’d have to say that targeting the high profile and popular instances (South Park) rather than the obscure (?)(Corpus Christy) gets us more bang for the buck.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Hello Rob Falk,

          General Motors makes cars. If I pay GM money for a car, the car is then mine. I can do with my car whatever I want.

          South Park Studios makes the show “South Park”. Viacom paid SPS money for the show, the show is now Viacom’s. Viacom can now do whatever they want with their show.

          That is hardly “repression”.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    Oh, sorry… I forgot to mention. Whatever the facts behind the censorship, I’m disgusted, and I’m with Kyle!

  9. collapse expand

    Mr. Barol,

    Part of difficulty in this particular discussion is that there is an imbedded political and ideological conflict that is not apparent to all.

    The first clue to these underlying issues is the fact that Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have jumped on the band wagon, denouncing Viacom for their actions. When did these gentlemen become champions of free speech and opponents of the rights of giant corporations? They were none too quick to champion the cause of “Corpus Christi”.

    The conflict the in the south-west Asia is often framed in cultural and religious terms. It is a “clash of civilizations” (i.e. Islamic vs. European) or as “Christianity vs. Islam”. Certainly there are plenty of people who see the US as the champion of the Faranji infidel’s crusade against Islam. The invasion of Iraq is seen by many, not as a geo-political maneuver to achieve strategic hegemony in south-west Asia, but rather as a Christian crusade against the Muslim world. The disrespectful portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed is seen as a metaphor or surrogate for this conflict. Westerners who mock the Prophet Mohammed are seen as participating in this broad anti-Islamic crusade. As the NTY reports, Younus Abdullah Muhammad, a member of Revolution Muslim….tied the group’s complaints about “South Park” to larger frustrations about American support for Israel and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (my ellipse).

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/23/arts/television/23park.html

    There are those in the US who are equally eager to dress political conflicts up on in religious and cultural clothing. That is certainly the agenda for the likes of Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Limbaugh. They see the South Park dust-up in exactly those terms, a defeat in the war against Islam. Viacom is caving into Muslim thugs.

    Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker took a deliberately provocative approach to their episode. Muslim Revolution took a deliberately provocative response. Further fueling this mutually re-enforcing cycle of provocation and counter-provocation only aids a destructive and reactionary view of the conflict in the Middle East. I believe that we have to move away from framing the debate in religious and cultural terms and return it to politics and economics.

    Stoking the fires of religious and cultural conflict does nothing helpful.

  10. collapse expand

    Wow….

    I just don’t understand how any one person would believe he has the individual capacity to judge whether or not “episode 201″ had a “message” to deliver for anyone else but himself…

    For one, a lot of the ultimate message was bleeped out…

    For two, as a previous poster alluded to, everything is worth protecting, or nothing is.

    Who are YOU to decided what is worth censoring, and whether that message meets the requirements of the 1st Amendment?

    Nobody should have that singular power, which is why it is written that nobody shall.

    Is it because the format of the message is in cartoon form? Why would the medium matter, regardless?

    And finally, if you believe South Park doesn’t relay some surprisingly relevant and level-headed “messages,” you’re just not capable of looking beyond the words in the first place.

    • collapse expand

      Hello bulletproofair,

      My dear fellow, you did not read what I wrote, you read what you thought I wrote which was something quite different.

      You asked:”Who are YOU to decided what is worth censoring, and whether that message meets the requirements of the 1st Amendment?”

      1) I did not say that *I* get to decide which messages are worth censoring. I have no censorship powers other than deciding what I watch or do not watch.

      What I did say was that I get to decide which cases of censorship I think are worth my time and energy to worry about. A very different point.

      2) As I noted above, this is not a 1st Amendment case. The 1st Amendment says that governments cannot abridge free speech. The bleeps inserted into Episode 201 were not there because any government action.

      Rather Viacom, a private business, asserted its contractual right to edit Episode 201 before it was broadcast on a channel owned by Viacom. That Viacom might have the final say on what a show contains that it pays for and is broadcast over its facilities his hardly a 1st Amendment case.

      Additionally you wrote:”Is it because the format of the message is in cartoon form? Why would the medium matter, regardless?”. Had you bothered to read by previous posts, you would have noted that I addressed this point already. The format is not the issue, it is as I have noted several times it is a question of “message and perspective”. They had nothing important to say – IMO – and the degree of censorship was minor.

      You also wrote:”if you believe South Park doesn’t relay some surprisingly relevant and level-headed “messages,” you’re just not capable of looking beyond the words in the first place.”

      My point applied to Episode 201, the episode that was censored. I have a fairly extensive discussion about the content just above in direct response to Mr. Barol.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a writer in Santa Monica, CA. I spent some years at Newsweek and some more writing for TV. My freelance journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Slate, The Boston Globe, Fast Company, Fortune Small Business, Washington Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, American Heritage and TV Guide, and on PBS.

    I've been writing about popular culture for more than 20 years, and about technology for almost that long. I've been fascinated the last few years with the way the two have started to intertwine, so that's what I'll be looking at here: Technology, pop culture and the places where they meet. I'll also be poking around in the world of blogging, microblogging, nanoblogging, micronanoblogging and whatever comes next.

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