Fifty years ago, when Oliver Emmerich reported and editorialized for racial progress in McComb, the Ku Klux Klan threatened him, burned a cross in his yard, shot into his newspaper, and hurled a Molotov cocktail at the home of his managing editor Charles Dunagin. They did not silence him. He continued to speak out despite violence and fear of death. Emmerich possessed a compelling moral reason to speak out about injustice, and a pragmatic vision that prosperity and a strong economy required a change from that era's racial policies.

Doing the right thing can be worth death threats. Doing the wrong thing...not so much.

Viacom's Comedy Central learned that recently. Two episodes of the adult comedy South Park mocked Islamic beliefs concerning their prophet Muhammad. The program also ridiculed the sensitivities of those who fear violent reprisals by radical extremists against those who negatively portray Muhammad.

The two-part program celebrated South Park's 200th episode. The plot had Hollywood celebrities demanding the people of South Park turn over Muhammad to them so they could capture whatever power he had that made him immune to being mocked. Otherwise, the celebrities would both sue the town and destroy it with a giant mechanized Barbara Streisand monster. Meanwhile, Muhammad was part of a super team along with Moses, Jesus, Buddha, John Smith, Krishna and others. To prevent violence, the citizens of the town dressed Muhammad in a bear costume.

Literature it ain't. But about three million people watch the series each week and it has received a Peabody Award and four Emmy Awards.

The power Muhammad possessed was actually that extremists would use violence if someone mocked him. The Hollywood celebrities were essentially doing the same thing to South Park. Now, back in our real world, as if right on script, Comedy Central received a threat against the show's creators and the studio significantly edited the 201st episode as a result. I can't help but think it isn't true and this is all part of a bigger satirical joke by the South Park creators. The 201st episode featured conversations and a monologue beeped out, and a drawing of Mohammed covered by a black "censored" box.

South Park is not anti-Islam; it is anti-everything. If you hold something sacred, then South Park will offend you. Their satire bites at all social taboos. Homosexuality, pedophilia, promiscuity, monogamy, abstinence, Tiger Woods and sex addiction: all jokes for South Park. The lone black friend is named "Token." A Jewish character constantly faces anti-Semitic remarks. Drugs, immigration, terrorism, guns, tobacco, teen music: no issue is too important or trivial to tease. No celebrity is immune; South Park lampoons Hollywood and political figures.

But if this is not a joke, then Comedy Central has proven it will bend to threats. Outrage at blasphemy is not unique to Islam. But there are more Muslim radicals committed to violence than there are Buddhists or Christians. So, Comedy Central has no qualms about mocking my values because I will not blow up their studio. Comedy Central let the terrorists win. Extremists made a threat and Comedy Central complied. It almost encourages people toward violence.

I guess you have to ask yourself, if you are a television executive, is it really worth dying over a cartoon? Well, the answer for those executives was certainly not. I can't blame them. I certainly wouldn't want to be a target of terrorists for blasphemy against their prophet. But then again, I don't make it my regular job to go out and look to offend anyone.

I think Comedy Central is wrong for its offensive material; but I don't have to watch it and I usually don't and I respect their right to say those things that offend me. I think the extremists are wrong to threaten Comedy Central. And I think Comedy Central is inviting future threats. But this isn't censorship. Comedy Central can choose to broadcast its programming however it wants. It can choose to say or not say whatever it wants. But it is obvious that decision is not based on political satire, humor, or values: only on self preservation.

In Mississippi, Emmerich stood up against terroristic Klan threats because it was the right thing to do. He certainly was not wanting violence or looking for trouble, but such was to be expected when he tried to do the right thing.

With Comedy Central, this is someone doing the wrong thing. Their reaction is no big surprise.

Tornadoes, floods, oil spills, billion dollar energy plants, car bombs in New York, wars, a recession: there are more important things to discuss than a cartoon. But it stands as a reminder that while the freedom speech is an important thing, not all things are important to say.


Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.