Threat against 'South Park' creators highlights dilemma for media companies

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.


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.

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