Censoring Rap Music


You don't have to be a fan of rap music or of rapper Ice-T to be disturbed by Time-Warner's decision last week to withdraw the "Body Count" album after police groups and conservative politicians objected to the song "Cop Killer," which critics charge glorifies the murder of police. Once self-appointed censors, no matter how well-intentioned, are allowed to dictate what other Americans can see, read or listen to, the right of all Americans to make up their own minds is threatened.

We say this fully aware of the fact that many people who are not police officers also deplore Ice-T's lyrics, along with much else that goes with the culture of rap music. Ice-T, like many performers who cater to adolescent audiences, goes out of his way to make himself offensive. Teen-agers sublimate their rebellion against adult authority by buying his music, their parents are appalled and the record company makes a tidy profit. This kind of thing has been going on at least since Elvis Presley.

Society certainly has an interest in setting limits for what is acceptable. Those limits have expanded greatly since Elvis' famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. But the principle remains that whatever limit defines the status quo is the one the latest performer will try to breach. Some people may not always see this as progress, but it is change and it is inevitable one way or another. Ice-T may never appear on a postage stamp, but his act is unlikely to subvert the republic, either.

The people who want to shut him up are another matter. It's fine for the police, or anyone else, to protest works they don't like but they shouldn't be allowed to prevent other people from enjoying them. The unfettered circulation of ideas is a cornerstone of a free society's vitality and strength. Eventually people will make up their own minds as to what's good and bad. The winnowing process isn't always efficient or pretty, but the alternative is a totalitarian culture in which the arts are reduced to mere instruments of state policy.

There was some truth to Ice-T's complaint that he is being treated "like this year's Willy Horton." As The Sun's J. D. Considine commented last week, "rap -- particularly the work of angry and articulate stars such as Ice-T -- has become an easy and obvious target for politicians eager to play off of middle class America's anxieties over urban violence." That makes it easier for many people to overlook the principle of free speech that is being violated in this brouhaha. You don't have to like what Ice-T is saying to acknowledge that he has the right to say it. To deny him that right diminishes the rights of all Americans.

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