It's almost inspirational to read that corporations like General Motors and International Paper are taking a belated but certainly welcomed interest in civil liberties. It appears that the giant automobile manufacturer is getting the same kind of federal grand jury abuse which so many politically and socially unorthodox people have been getting for many years.

A federal grand jury investigating G.M. for taxes has treated the world's largest manufacturing company with such rudeness that one of its lawyers complained the matter was being handled like a "gangster case." Evidently G.M. still hasn't gotten it through the corporate skull bone that when you allow gangsters to be mistreated you set yourself up for the same kind of kicking around. Irving Younger, a Cornell University law prof, tried to explain the principle by saving, "You protect the rights when it's your turn." (The Wall Street Jornal. June 23.) Perhaps now some of those G.M. executives with the slow brain muscles will understand that being a stickler for constitutional rights and due process isn't motivated by a desire to be soft on crooks but to protect one's self against the eventualities which an all-powerful centralized state can bring down on the board of the guilty and the innocent alike.

The two companies are complaining about different but overlapping grand jury abuses. G.M. objects to evidence collected through the grand jury's subpoena power for one purpose being turned over to a government agency to be used against the company for a different purpose. This goes to the question of how secret grand jury testimony and evidence should be in general.

One of the reasons the grand jury exists at all is to protect the citizenry against promiscuous, frivolous, reckless and vengeful prosecution by the government. It is supposed to act as a screen or a filter to stop the government from taking to trail people against whom the obviously isn't enough evidence to convict. A trial is, after all, a terrible thing for a defendant, both to his purse and his reputation. Thus one of the major functions of a grand jury is defeated if somebody's reputation is ruined by the release and leaking of evidence or testimony either to a government agency or a newspaper. As G.M. found out, in the hands of Justice Department attorneys the sacred seal of grand jury secrecy is an on-and-off again thing observed to suit the government's convenience, not the citizen's rights.

The International Paper Co. is indignant over the use of "extremely vague and broad" subpoenas, or what the radicals used to call a fishing expedition. This is hard enough for a large corporation but it can be devastating for the impecunious individual. In recent years there have been several shocking cases of lesbian women being asked about the private lives of their friends or acquaintances under pain of going to jail for contempt of court. Several have chosen the slammer.

This goes to the controversy over the Justice Department using grand juries as an investigatory tool. The juries allow a district attorney to do what he ordinarily can't constitutionally do . . . grill witnesses under oaths about anything that suits the D.A.'s prosecutorial fancy without a defense lawyer present. Moreover as the law now reads many a potential defendant can be stripped of his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination by a ruthless D.A.

Various bills have been introduced in Congress to make it somewhat more difficult to use the grand jury as an instrument of government policy rather than justice. There are proposals to limit incursions against the Fifth Amendment and to facilitate grand juries kicking federal prosecutors out of their hearing rooms and hiring their own lawyers. Whether grand jurors can be taught not to be stooges for the D.A. remains to be seen, but it at least ought to be tried.

The likes of General Motors would like to see witnesses have the right to bring counsel into the grand jury room. That might be a good idea if everyone had unlimited funds, like G.M., to payw lawyers. For others it would be a tremendous expense akin to enduring the cost of two trials. We already have enough people in the country shooting themselves because they can't afford to get well and face the doctor's bills. At this rate well replicate the same situation in law; we will be having people pleading guilty because it's too costly to defend themselves.

We should be grateful, I suppose, to General Motors et al for getting interested in grand jury reform. We were getting nowhere with the idea without them and their power, but there's a price. In order to protect individuals in their rights we may have to extend protection to the non-human, non-citizen corporation for which the Bill of Rights was never intended.