Music critics are used to receiving letters from IRS -- that's the catchy acronym Miles Copeland thought up for his International Record Syndicate. Copeland also has a management firm called Frontier Booking International, but when Los Angeles's Priority Records got an FBI missive in August, it was no joking matter. The small independent label, which distributes records by N.W.A. (Niggers With Attitude), received a letter on Federal Bureau of Investigation stationery and signed by Milt Ahlerich, assistant director for the Office of Public Affairs. It focused on N.W.A.'s album "Straight Outta Compton" and, without naming it, the rap group's controversial single "{Expletive} Tha Police," which includes such lines as "takin' out a police will make my day" and "beat a police outta shape" and the observation that policemen suspect "every nigger is selling narcotics." Ahlerich's letter, released at last week's Music in Action demonstration at Lafayette Square, says the song "encourages violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer. ... Advocating violence and assault is wrong and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action." Pointing out that violent crime reached record levels last year, Ahlerich wrote that "seventy-eight law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in the line of duty in 1988, four more than in 1987. Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the protection of our citizens and recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers. ... Music plays a significant role in society and I wanted you to be aware of the FBI's position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community." Intimidation: That's what Barry Lynn, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, calls it. "This is the closest thing to the infamous letter sent by the Ed Meese pornography commission to retail stores suggesting there might be a part of their final report mentioning the companies that dealt in pornography," says Lynn. "It had the same kind of intimidating tone, though I must say this one's even more intimidating because of {the 'FBI's position'} line. He's clearly trying to characterize this as an official position of the FBI, and that's what takes it beyond the scope of just the opinion of an elected official. It's designed to get Priority to change its practices, policies and distribution for this record, and that's the kind of censorship by intimidation that the First Amendment doesn't permit." "The idea that this is being interpreted as a threat or some sort of chilling of the First Amendment is certainly not correct at all," says Ahlerich. "This was strictly a means of communications about violence associated {with} or directed at police officers and violence in general, and our concern about that. The FBI are not music critics, but we did feel that those responsible for the distribution of the music should be aware. We don't know whether they were or weren't. Now they are." The two words from Priority Records were: "No comment." Ahlerich says the FBI is not aware of any instances in which the N.W.A. song has provoked anti-police violence. "I don't know whether that could occur or not, but it seemed to me that it could. The fact that police officers are victims of violence is something that shouldn't be overlooked in this issue." Certainly, police departments around the country haven't overlooked N.W.A. The local promoters G Street Express handled the group's first national tour last summer, and according to Vice President Carol Kirkendall, police pressure against the group was persistent. "We had 36 dates and all had problems in some way," says Kirkendall. In Toledo, Ohio, police refused to provide their usual security, but the show went on with private security. In Shreveport, La., police barricaded the area around the hall, carefully monitoring concert-goers. Most halls forced the group to sign a contract forbidding performance of the "Police" song, with one group of venues mandating a $25,000 fine if it did. N.W.A. didn't, until the last stop at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, where police (both on and off duty) initially refused to work inside or outside the hall. After lengthy negotiations, the show went on, but the police presence was, according to Kirkendall, "overwhelming. And so, boys being boys, at the end of the show, N.W.A. launched into it." The plug was pulled and police rushed the stage, she says, and there were scuffles backstage as they unsuccessfully sought out the group. Other N.W.A. dates started falling out after the Detroit flap, including a Labor Day rap revue at Capital Centre (it went on, but without N.W.A.). Kirkendall says Prince George's County police exerted pressure on the Cap Centre, and G Street decided not to pursue the matter at that time. Ironically, Kirkendall says that N.W.A. often addressed its audiences after performances about the proper attitude and demeanor for leaving the venues. Lynn and representatives of Music in Action met Sept. 25 with Thomas Boyd, director of the Justice Department's Office of Policy Development, to air concerns over censorship of rock lyrics and to inquire about guidelines on federal obscenity laws for record retailers. "When you can find something to be obscene at a local level, it is possible for the federal government to use those crimes -- distributing obscene materials -- as predicate offenses for triggering the federal racketeering statutes," says Lynn. "Among other things, that permits the government to seize the entirety of one's business by arguing that you took the proceeds from selling the obscene, illegal tapes and plowed it back into your record store and therefore your record store is now a corrupted business, corrupted by the fruits of this unlawful product." "It was a useful meeting, and I think we have an understanding of them and they had an opportunity to listen to what we said," says Boyd. "We're all concerned here about any suggestion of censorship. On the other hand, the FBI's letter didn't attempt, as far as I read it, to engage in any degree of censorship. Mr. Ahlerich expressed an opinion, which I think we all share, that advocating violence and assault is wrong." Ultimately, Lynn suggests, censorship is an issue that's more immediate than most rock fans realize. "People don't think about it until they become subjects of censorship. The arts community in general really didn't think about censoring art until Jesse Helms decided to start cutting budgets -- all of a sudden the arts community went into a mode of highly successful organizing to oppose censorship. It was a remarkable trail of success that the arts community traveled in defeating most of these provisions in the Helms amendment, but until there is a target and it happens to come very close to where you are standing, people tend to think censorship is a little esoteric and not something that affects them personally. "I just wish they took notice at the edges {like rap and heavy metal}, because that's where the real fight begins and where in my judgment they ought to be stopped," Lynn continues. "When you let the censors run amok, very quickly they hit on the popular material, so that if you don't stop them at the beginning, they tend to encroach more and more on the vital center of popular culture." Adds Dave Marsh of MIA, "The record industry is becoming a testing ground for the proposition that if you give a censor an inch, they'll want a kilometer."