*Spoiler Alert: This post contains some spoilers to the South Park episodes “200” and “201”. In Ireland and the United Kingdom South Park airs on Comedy Central. Comedy Central has not aired the episode “201” in Ireland or the United Kingdom. The episode “201” has been uploaded (illegally) onto a variety of sites.
HRiI has discussed extensively the issue of criminal blasphemy in Ireland, over the last few months, see, here, here, here, here, here and here. Contributors to these posts noted Ireland’s hypocrisy on the issue, and the threats which this legislation posed to freedom of expression. The popular Comedy Central show South Park celebrated its 200th episode recently. In typical South Park fashion it dealt with a number of pressing (and not so pressing) issues. A central focus of both the 200th and 201st episodes (as it was in the episodes Cartoon Wars: Part I and Cartoon Wars: Part II) revolved around the religious prophet Muhammad and the controversy regarding depicting him in human form. A number of groups who did not want to be ridiculed (celebrities and persons with red hair), sought Muhammad’s ‘goo’ which they believed would make them impervious from public ridicule or criticism. In the South Park Universe, Muhammad is part of the Super Best Friends, a group of religious figures (plus one) who help those in need. The group consists of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, Joseph Smith, Lao Tzu, Moses and a character called Sea Man. The Super Best Friends were introduced to the South Park Universe in 2001, and as the picture to the side shows, there was no controversy for depicting an image of Muhammad (to the right of Jesus). However, with the publication of the Danish Cartoons and the resulting violence (see here, here, here, and to view the controversial cartoons see here), Comedy Central refused to air the image of Muhammad. It had initially been thought that the 200th episode depicted Muhammad dressed up in an oversize bear outfit, harking park to the Sudanese controversy. However, in the 201st episode it was revealed that Muhammad was not in the bear costume. For the whole of the 201st episode, images of Muhammad were censored and Muhammad’s name was bleeped from the dialogue. In addition, large portions of the show were bleeped when a number of the characters tried to suggest what could be learned from the problems the characters faced in the episode. The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had their addresses published on extremist website forums and suggested they would face a similar fate to Theo van Gogh (see here, here, here, here and here).
Is such gratuitous mocking of religion permitted under human rights law? Do human rights protections extend to those who wish not to have deeply held beliefs ridiculed in a crass (or any other) manner? Read more…
As we previously noted here, yesterday saw the official launch of the Scholars at Risk Irish network, supported by Universities Ireland. To mark the launch of SAR’s organised presence in Ireland (it had already been working in NUI Galway, particularly through the efforts of the Irish Centre for Human Rights), a very full Robert Emmett theatre in Trinity College Dublin was addressed by Nobel laureate and groundbreaking Iranian human rights lawyer, Dr. Shirin Ebadi. The lecture was delivered in Farsi with simultaneous translation, therefore my notes below are only notes and not direct quotes, but the lecture was a passionate and impacting argument for the importance of free expression, intellectual freedom, democracy and human rights.
July 2009 produced a strange legislative symmetry in the Oireachtas and the UK Parliament. At the same time both legislatures found themselves debating the abolition of the offence of sedition, a common law offence which was already all but moribund at the time of Ireland’s independence. In his excitement at the prospect of the proposed abolition of sedition in the United Kingdom in the Coroners and Justice Bill currently before Parliament, Lord Lester of Herne Hill (left) cast a baleful eye across the Irish Sea at the ‘hilariously ironic’ events in the Oireachtas. For, just as the United Kingdom finally moves to abolish the offence of sedition, a mere 30 years after a UK Law Commission Working Paper advised it to do so, Ireland seems unable to extirpate this offence from its Constitution.
In Ireland we are quite accustomed to our freedom of expression being significantly limited where that freedom is abused. This results from the express limitations in both Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. International law also prohibits propaganda to war as our colleague Michael Kearney has explained and examined in detail in his book The Prohibition of Propaganda for War in International Law (2007, OUP). In the United States, however, the constitutional protection of free speech (First Amendment), while not absolute, is certainly broader than is the case in Ireland or indeed under the ECHR. This makes the appeal argument by counsel for Al Hamza Ahmad Suliman al Bahlul—the only person currently in Guantánamo Bay to have been convicted of an offence relating to the ‘War on Terrorism’—all the more interesting. Details of the appeal after the jump.