Comedy Central's Editing of the South Park Mohammed Episode is NOT Censorship

by | May 5, 2010

Throughout the debate over South Park, various commentators have been extremely sloppy in their use of the term “censorship.” That’s a real problem, because censorship is a horrible evil, but it’s hard to fight if people don’t even know what it is. While in other contexts “censorship” can carry a broader meaning (as with the […]

Throughout the debate over South Park, various commentators have been extremely sloppy in their use of the term “censorship.” That’s a real problem, because censorship is a horrible evil, but it’s hard to fight if people don’t even know what it is.

While in other contexts “censorship” can carry a broader meaning (as with the term “self-censorship”), in the political context censorship means the use of political force to ban or suppress expression. For example, if the government fines, arrests, imprisons, or harasses you for what you say or write, that is censorship.

The actions of private parties never constitute censorship. If a newspaper decides to fire a writer or pull a writer’s article, the newspaper is NOT censoring that writer. If I write a blog post but then intentionally erase it, that is NOT censorship.

While Comedy Central capitulated to terrorist threats and suppressed the expression of the South Park creators, Comedy Central did not technically censor the show. You can call the acting executives at Comedy Central damned cowards, but you oughtn’t call them censors. They have the right to broadcast whatever they want on their station, consonant with their contractual obligations.

To conflate government censorship with nonviolent private acts is to obliterate the very concept of censorship and to open the gates to actual censorship.

If somebody calls you on the phone or writes to you and threatens you over an article you’ve written (as I have been threatened), that certainly constitutes the criminal suppression of speech, something that is properly outlawed and that the government properly protects against. However, such criminal action is not properly considered censorship, a term that refers only to government action.

Now, a government can sanction the criminal suppression of speech, by failing to protect those who have been threatened, and that becomes censorship. Or, as with the case of the Taliban, the street criminals effectively constitute the government, so criminal suppression of speech amounts to censorship. Morally, government censorship and criminal suppression of speech are equivalent evils.

The U.S. government has, by my understanding, taken measures to protect the creators of South Park, even if those measures have been too weak. If President Obama has condemned the death threats, I have not heard of it.

It is absolutely critical that we understand and articulate the meaning of censorship, for there is nothing more important to the maintenance of a free society than the protection of free speech, which requires the eradication of criminal suppression of speech and of (government) censorship.

Ari Armstrong is a writer for the Coalition for Secular Government and the editor of FreeColorado.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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