The observant among NBN’s readership have undoubtedly noticed the chalk cartoons which have appeared across campus the past couple of days. Like the South Park episodes they reference, these cartoons are crude, offensive to some, and — most importantly — force us to answer some uncomfortable and difficult questions, questions which strike at the very rights and obligations we hold as Americans.
The cartoons, drawn by Secular Humanists for Inquiry and Free Thought (SHIFT), are part of the ongoing controversy created by two of last month’s South Park episodes. Comedy Central ran South Park’s “Episode 200” depicting, along with a host of other celebrities and religious figures, the Prophet Muhammad (in a reference to earlier controversies surrounding the censorship of the Prophet, the cartoonists put the founder of Islam in a bear suit). The episode was then sharply criticized by New York-based revolutionmuslim.com—“We have to warn Matt and Trey [Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the minds behind South Park] that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh [the Dutch documentarian who was killed by an Islamic extremist in response to a film Gogh had made] for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.” Finally, Comedy Central censored large parts of the subsequent episode. Since then, the ensuing conflict has been fought on the editorial pages of newspapers and magazines across the world and has now reached the Northwestern campus.
In some corners, Comedy Central executives have been criticized for their “cowardice” in the face of threats of violence. In chalking Northwestern sidewalks Sunday night, SHIFT echoes these sentiments. Not-so-implicitly, the cartoons argue that Comedy Central’s actions in censoring representations of Muhammad constitute worrying infringements on Americans’ rights to free speech.
While this stance is understandable, the questions raised by these incidents are far too complicated to be answered by simplistic stands against “censorship.” To be fair, it is true that there is a danger in changing one’s actions in the face of potential violence (this is why the United States does not negotiate with terrorists). Giving in, so the logic goes, only suggests that more concessions can be gained by even more violence and intimidation.
Distinctions need to be made, however, between one, the actions of government (which has the capacity and obligation to defend itself and its citizens from threats) and the actions of private corporations (whose responsibilities end with its employees and stockholders) and two, between protecting against the censorship of different kinds of speech. These distinctions lie at the crux of this controversy. Ultimately, the questions are whether the same scrutiny should be applied to instances of corporate censorship as is applied to instances of government censorship and whether the same gravity exists in the censorship of depictions of a religious leader in a bear suit as exists in the censorship of reports of government corruption.
To the first question, it’s clear that government censorship and corporate censorship are worlds apart. If the U.S. government had censored the South Park episode, many Northwesterners would be out on the streets now protesting against the censorship; the rights to free speech and press, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, are important guarantees against state censorship. The Supreme Court has carved out a few exceptions to the right of free speech (fighting words, child pornography, libel), but is careful to not add more; the Court even recently declined to add images of animal cruelty to the list.
Corporate censorship, however, is different. Whether it is simply to meet space requirements or to avoid alienating all-important advertisers, newspapers and broadcasters regularly practice self-censorship. Although the South Park case raises the worrying possibility of corporations self-censoring in response to threats (and thus possibly creating the impetus for more threats), the answer to the first question is clear: government censorship and corporate censorship are entirely different and demand entirely different evaluative standards.
The second question, whether the same gravity exists in the censorship of depictions of religious leaders in bear suits as exists in the censorship of reports of government corruption, brings the controversy close to the hearts of many Northwestern students. For Northwestern’s journalism students, censorship is a particular concern. Joseph Medill charged journalists to “write boldly and tell the truth fearlessly; criticize whatever is wrong … no matter how much it may offend the guilty or wound the would-be leaders of your party….” These words echo the values of free speech and press held by journalists across the world, especially here at Northwestern. This resistance to censorship, so crucial in demanding accountability from government and business, is often described as a defense of “the public’s right to know.”
But while “the public’s right to know” should be vigorously defended, the “public’s right to be entertained” has more questionable worth. Simply put, the right to inform and the right to insult are different in kind, not simply degree. It’s tempting to wax poetic on the virtues of standing up to censorship and thuggery, but the bright lines begin to gray when the discussion turns from brave journalists exposing rapacious government behavior to comedians insulting the hallowed founder of a religion held by one-fifth the world.
Comedy Central’s decision to censor a couple South Park episodes in order to protect the safety of their employees is utterly different from an editor’s decision to not run a story exposing government or corporate malfeasance for fear of reprisal. The former is an understandable balancing of the various concerns involved, while the latter is a cowardly suppression of the truth; the former denies the public a chuckle, the latter denies the public the facts necessary for a functioning civic dialogue. This distinction is precisely the reason that Medill students are taught the importance and the unique responsibilities of their profession. It is a distinction which answers the second question in a resounding negative; the same gravity does not exist in the censorship of entertainment as exists in the censorship of journalism.
It is a distinction that SHIFT and its supporters would do well to remember. Although Americans hold certain “unalienable rights”, Americans hold certain obligations as well; these include knowing when fights against censorship are merited and necessary protections of our civic discourse and when they are needlessly antagonistic and offensive.