The right to free expression is the cornerstone of a free society. Sadly, this sacred institution is under attack, from without but also from within. Comedy Central’s decision to self-censor the depiction of the Muslim prophet Muhammad on “South Park” is only the most recent case.
A threatening post on a extremist Islamic website prompted the station to bleep every mention of the prophet’s name, and even Kyle’s monologue about free speech at the end of the episode.
This is not the first time that artistic productions have been significantly altered out of fear. Indeed, such censorship has permeated the highest levels of academia, evidenced by a decision by the Yale University Press not to publish the Danish cartoons that infuriated some Muslims in 2005, even in a book about those cartoons.
This capitulating mindset has even captured the opinion of world leaders. The Obama administration recently endorsed an Egyptian proposal in the United Nations to balance free speech against respect for religion.
As offensive as the visual depiction of Muhammad may be to some Muslims, the suppression of free expression by Comedy Central and others is even more offensive to a free society. That is why a Seattle cartoonist declared “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day”: to serve notice that those committed to the right of freedom of expression will not be intimidated by religious extremists. Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at Stanford is participating in this protest on Thursday, May 20th because we stand up for free expression, especially when it is unpopular or dangerous. We will be drawing images of Muhammad and we invite you to come to our table in White Plaza from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. if you would like to draw the prophet yourself or discuss the motives or spirit of this protest.
The intentions of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” have been misunderstood by some commentators, so let us explain what this event is not. It is not an accusation that all censorship is born of Muslim intransigence or general religious hand-wringing (more on that presently). This is not an anti-religion event, but an anti-censorship event: what we are protesting is the notion that threats of violence can protect ideas from criticism. We also don’t want this event to be a one-day hit-and-run affair, but the beginning of a continuing dialogue both on campus and nationwide about how censorship, including self-censorship, affects discourse in our world and how to prevent it.
It is important to note that radical Muslims do not have a monopoly on agitating for censorship, something that is often obscured beneath the rabid anti-Muslim prejudice in American society. While Comedy Central was editing one of its flagship shows without the permission of the show’s creators, a Texas university canceled its production of “Corpus Christi” (a play starring a gay Jesus) because of threatening phone calls and emails.
In the United States, the First Amendment protects us from overt censorship. However, cases of government banning of religious expression have begun to surface in Europe: in France, a law is pending that will ban Muslim women from wearing traditional full-body covers, and the Swiss constitution has been amended to ban the construction of minarets, the towers that adorn mosques, of which exactly four exist in the entire country.
In fact, these non-Muslim-inspired bouts of censorship and self-censorship are almost certainly more pervasive because the excuses for them are more readily accepted in the mainstream. As the blog Balloon Juice aptly puts it, “When it happens because of right-wing American complaints, it’s called family values or patriotism. When it happens because of Muslim complaints, it’s called censorship.”
We believe in the right of free expression for both popular and unpopular speech. That is why we feel the need to celebrate “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” It is not simply to show solidarity with those that have felt the brunt of censorship and even threats of violence in the past. More importantly, we want to emphasize that no idea, person or event is beyond criticism in a free society.
Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics at Stanford