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US Comedy Channel Censors Joke About Islam's Prophet

Free speech advocates in America are criticizing a television network for censoring a comedy that made fun of Islam's prophet Muhammad. The show was altered after a blogger warned that its producers could be murdered.

South Park is an adult cartoon that revels in crude language and insults.

Many Americans find the show offensive. But it's been very popular. The Comedy Central network has kept South Park on the air since 1997. And a few years ago, one of its creators, Trey Parker, defended the format. "We're not laughing at people, we're laughing with joy, and that's what we want, we want SouthPark to be that show that, 'Can't we all relax and isn't this all kind of funny, and aren't we having fun?"

But Muslims were not amused last week, when South Park showed their prophet in a bear costume.

A posting on the website of a New York-based group called Revolution Muslim warned that the producers could end up like the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. He was stabbed to death in Amsterdam in 2004 after making a movie that criticized the treatment of women in Islam.

Comedy Central broadcast the latest episode of South Park on Wednesday with the Muhammad character blacked out. A day later, the producers posted a statement on their website, accusing the network of removing a commentary on intimidation and fear.

The statement angered many of the show's fans and triggered an outpouring of criticism from free speech advocates.

Charles Haynes is a scholar at the non-governmental First Amendment Center, which is named after the constitutional amendment that protects free speech in America. He says it's South Park's right to offend people. "The answer to bad speech is not less speech, or government control, or censorship or threats. The answer to speech we don't like is to say what we believe is to be true and speak out," he said.

And Haynes says Comedy Central set a bad precedent in response to the threat. "The more we give in to those kinds of threats, by censorship, the more we will see censorship increase, and intimidation increase," he said.

South Park has insulted other religioius groups including Jews, Catholics, Mormons and Scientologists. But this is the first time Comedy Central has reined in the show.

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says the Revolution Islam group is not a real threat. "These [are just a] couple individuals with a megaphone. It's just wild rhetoric. The mainstream Muslim community in America just looks at this stuff and says, yeah, it's offensive but let's ignore it," he said.

The producers of the show say next week's show will be about something completely different.