Ice-t's 'Cop Killer' Is Not A First Amendment Issue

Posted: July 23, 1992

It is not my intention today to make the case that Charlton Heston is a deep thinker, but, giving the man his due, when he spoke last week before Time Warner's annual shareholders' meeting about that company's continued marketing and sale of the album "Body Count," specifically the song "Cop Killer," he did find his way to the heart of the entertainment world's hypocrisy.

And that is sorting through a lot of garbage to find Grandma's dentures.

As you probably know, Time Warner has been under pressure from various police organizations to take the album, in which rapper Ice-T romanticizes the assassination of police officers, off the shelves of record stores where impressionable children are likely to find them. The album does not come with one of those don't-try-this-at-home warnings for kids.

And as you probably know, Time Warner has stood its ground, posing the issue as freedom of speech and the company's responsibility to make sure "the voices of the powerless, the disenfranchised, those at the margin are heard."

Those words, by the way, came to us from Gerald M. Levin, Time Warner co- chief executive officer, who spoke them at the shareholders' meeting at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. If you are powerless or disenfranchised, you might give Mr. Levin a call and ask him what he's doing for lunch.

At any rate, Mr. Heston, a Time Warner shareholder, attended the meeting and addressed his fellow shareholders. He read the lyrics to "Cop Killer" (which include the chant, "Die, die, die, cop, die").

Mr. Levin said it was nothing personal. "We have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for the men and women of America's law enforcement agencies," he said. "The role you're asked to play is uniquely difficult."

Words which must still sing in the hearts of cops everywhere.

But Mr. Levin didn't stop there. He said that sometime soon Time Warner will buy some television time and present - commercial free - a meeting of police officers, artists and citizens to examine the "complex issues" that have grown out of the fight over "Body Count."

These issues include freedom of speech, racial hatred and the job pressures of being a cop - among them, I suppose, not wanting to be murdered.

Meanwhile, however, the album stays on the store shelves. Insisting that the song speaks to the "despair and anger that hang in the air of every American inner city" and not to killing police, Mr. Levin offered his now- famous declaration of corporate soul.

"For a company like ours to have meaning," he said, " . . . we must help ensure that the voices of the powerless, the disenfranchised, those at the margins are heard."

Well, I don't know. Also heard last week was the National Rifle Association, which purchased a full-page newspaper ad attacking Time Warner and 69 companies of the record industry, which a day later bought full-page ads supporting Time Warner in a number of papers.

The ads from the music industry quoted Justice Hugo Black on the First Amendment: "I am for the First Amendment from the first word to the last. I believe it means what it says."

Beneath that, they wrote, "We are for the First Amendment from the first word to the last. We believe it means what it says . . . In other times, assaults on freedom of expression have failed because there were always Americans willing to stand up - and because, America as a nation is based not on silencing ideas, but on the liberty to think, to speak and yes, to sing."

Presumably, Americans are also free to read the First Amendment. Even Americans in the record industry. And when they do, perhaps they will glimpse that the issue of Time Warner's continued support for "Cop Killer" has nothing to do with it.

No one - not even Charlton Heston - is arguing that Ice-T doesn't have the right to rap about killing cops. If that's the nature of the air hanging over the man's inner-city despair and anger, or even if he just likes the way the words sound, he has the right to sing what he wants to sing.

As it also happens, Time Warner, like any other company, has the right to choose what it publishes. It is, in fact, accountable for what it chooses to publish. And while co-CEO Levin was clearly entitled to ask his question, ''What would Time Warner stand for if we made as the criterion of every creative effort the commandment 'do not disturb'?" the accompanying question is also in order:

What does Time Warner stand for now?

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