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Ice-T's Indefensible Lyrics

RAPPER Ice-T's album "Body Count," released in March, did not begin to sell until Vice President Quayle focused attention on the song "Cop Killer" two months later. The song's lyrics, which Ice-T later said are a fictional narrative about angry inner-city black youth, talk explicitly about killing police.

Not surprisingly, once the song got heard, police groups and politicians teamed against the album. Time Warner, shocked and outraged that anyone should question lyrics like "die, pig, die," defended Ice-T's First Amendment rights.

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The singer gave interviews to the Associated Press and Arsenio Hall, saying he "wouldn't mind" killing some brutal police officers, though he supported good police. The International Brotherhood of Police, unimpressed, threatened to sue Time Warner if any police officers were killed in cities that sold "Body Count." Album sales, meantime, went sky high.

Last week, however, Ice-T announced he and Time Warner were dropping "Cop Killer" from further album pressings. The decision gets the company out of a possible legal jam, boosts media coverage about Ice-T just as it was drying up, and probably sells a few more albums. Ice-T, not exactly penitent, plans to give away free tapes of "Cop Killer" at his concerts.

Songs like "Cop Killer" cannot be defended, no matter how angry young black Americans may be at undoubted injustices. Time Warner may have a right to sell the album. But others have the right to boycott it and challenge the company in court over any harm the recording may cause. Ice-T says the lyrics are fiction. Yet if they have the intent or effect of causing harm by encouraging others to do violence, they abridge the rights of those who are harmed and may go beyond the bounds of protected speech.

Time Warner would not sell art that employs epithets against blacks or Jews or that advocates groups such as the Klu Klux Klan or the Nazis, it has been noted. Then why this?

The existence of brutal police is not an argument for Ice-T, or anyone, presuming to judge who does or does not merit killing. The police, too, are victimized by confusion and hatred in society.

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