When J. R. Wiggins was editor of The Washington Post, members of his staff were told not to become officers or directors of community organizations, however worthy. Exception was made only for journalism societies.

Wiggins pointed out that a reporter might one day have to criticize his own organization. The conflict of interest would be intolerable.

Being a firm believer in the need for discipline in the ranks, I wasted no time in wondering whether Wiggins' rule was good or bad. He said not to do it, so I didn't do it.

However, the thought did enter my mind that, whatever the need of such a rule for others, there was no need of it for me. If a conflict arose, I'd know how to handle it, I said.

Jay Dismas of Sterling Park has now given me an opportunity to find out whether I was right or wrong.

"One day last week," Jay writes, "there was a letter to the editor of The Washington Post about the heavy smoking at Children's Hospital.

"The gentleman who wrote that letter pointed out that a person who must endure such a smoky environment is, for all intents and purposes, smoking.

"Are you the same Bill Gold who is responsible for raising so much money for Children's Hospital? Are you the man who is opposed to smoking in many public places? Why have you not spoken out about the smoking at Children's Hospital? It is bad enough that smokers force others to breathe the pollution they create, but it really burns me up when the victims are kids."

Yes, Jay, I am the fellow who tries to raise funds for Children's Hospital so that it can continue its policy of treating children whose parents are too poor to pay. And although I am not on the hospital's board of directors, I have permitted myself to become publicly identified with the hospital, and I am therefore reluctant to criticize it.

I have not spoken out before because nobody asked me to. Now that the issue has been raised, I see only one way to respond: precisely the same way I would have responded iF I had never put a moment of my time or a penny of my money into the hospital.

If I were running a hospital, I would permit no smoking inside it except by patients in private rooms who had the express permission of their doctors.

If some cranky old guy became so upset about being forbidden to smoke that, in the opinion of his doctor, his recovery was being impeded, the doctor could take the responsibility for letting him smoke. Other than that, no smoking.

You might ask: "Why not let people smoke in a hospital's cafeterias or lounges?" For the same reason they shouldn't smoke in other public places where their smoke must be breathed by others. By what right does one man pollute the air another must breathe?

How about separate smoking and nonsmoking areas? No, again. A privately owned restaurant can charge high enough prices to sustain dual facilities. A public institution should operate at the lowest prices consistent with good service.

No doubt officials at Children's Hospital, like the managers of private firms, are afraid that a smoking prohibition would be bad for business. After all, wouldn't "all the smokers" complain?

No, I think very few would complain. Most smokers know they're hooked on a rotten habit and wish they were free of it. When they're told they must stop inflicting their fumes on others, they nod glumly and offer to step outside into the blizzard to finish off the last few puffs. They know they have no right to force their smoke on others, especially on little children.

So I must reluctantly criticize past conditions at Children's Hospital and suggest to its board: Ladies and gentlemen, stop being afraid. When you move into your new building, have the courage to prohibit smoking. And if this be treason, or conflict of interest, report me to J. R. Wiggins. He never censored me, and neither has his successor, so it won't do you any good.