In defense of ‘South Park’ — and burqas

Friday, May 7, 2010

Editor's note: This commentary originally appeared May 5 on The
Washington Post's Web site. Reprinted by permission.

Q: What is the obligation of a Western, democratic government to
protect individual freedoms in light of a realistic terrorist threat? Are the
producers of “South Park” right to forfeit their freedom of expression in the
interests of protecting their employees? Are the governments of Europe right to
ban burqas in the interest of fostering a more open society?

When did the home of the brave become the land of the easily intimidated?
First Yale University caves, then Random House and the Metropolitan Museum of
Art and now even the intrepid Comedy Central. Is there an American institution
left — venerable or otherwise — willing to stand up for freedom of expression?

“South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker didn’t ask for “protection.”
In fact, they think the censorship “sucked,” to use one of their more printable

Of course, “South Park” offends. Nobody is spared, from Jesus to Joseph Smith.
But freedom of expression doesn’t mean very much if it doesn’t include the right
to offend. In a free society, blasphemy, however outrageous, is protected speech
— and no violation of religious freedom.

And of course, the producers of “South Park” have the right to bleep every
mention of “Mohammed” — they are not the government. But self-censorship out of
fear is an assault on free speech that undermines our democratic values and
threatens our liberty. As a people committed to robust freedom of speech,
Americans must resist every attempt to silence speech through fear and

Government bans on burqas, on the other hand, are violations of
religious freedom. For the Muslim woman who chooses to cover herself in this
way, the burqa is an expression of faith — a matter of conscience that is a
fundamental human right. In France and Belgian this and other claims of
conscience are often trumped by the government’s determination to prevent
“Islamization” of French and Belgian culture. The French, after all, ban even
headscarves from being worn by Muslim girls to state schools.

Far from fostering openness, anti-burqa laws close European societies to
those who refuse to conform to the dress and customs of the dominant culture.

Public safety, however, is a legitimate state interest. If government
authorities can make a compelling case for some, limited restrictions on wearing
the burqa — for example, the need for an identifiable photograph on a driver’s
license for law enforcement and other purposes — then and only then
should the state have the power to interfere with the free exercise of

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project
at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail: