Saints forbid that here in Washington, the very navel of the big orange called freedom, anyone might think of denying anyone else's free speech.

Nevertheless: Did the hundreds of young women who sidled into the Playboy suite at the Georgetown Inn this week, smiling their grimacey smiles for David Chan's Polaroid, all of them competing for space in a future magazine feature to be entitled "The Girls of Government" . . . did they know what could happen to them?

"It is clearly a woman's choice to make for herself," said Lynn Revo-Cohen, thus squashing the cankerworm of care about infringement of the Bill of Rights. Revo-Cohen, a lobbyist for Federally Employed Women (FEW), had helped organize the picketers who marched in front of the hotel under a May morning sun that could have coaxed daisies out of a stone.

What, then, were the 20-or-so women protesting?

"We feel that Playboy is being less than honest about risks to federal employes who pose for their magazine. I went up there yesterday under the name of Michelle Smith and David Chan told me that what you do on your own time is your own business."

What, Revo-Cohen wanted to know, about Appendix B, subparagraph a. of the Federal Personnel Manual, pursurant to Civil Service regulation 73.201(b) to wit: "Misconduct generally. Criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct," the maximum penalty being "removal."

The demonstrators, however, bore signs advocating "Success, Not Sex," and "ERA, Not T & A." The only hint of "removal" came in the refusal of five of them to give their names or the agencies they worked for, along with one sign reading: "Here On My Own Time."

The applicants themselves -- though they walked the thin wire of tolerence over the great abyss of "removal" -- were more forthcoming. And succinct. Asked about the issues at stake, Julie Casciano, 20, a secretary at the Securities and Exchange Commission, said "It's stupid."

Asked to expand on this, she said: "I can't see what the big deal is."

She'd come to the audition with her fellow secretary Patty Quinn, along with another who chose not to give her name. ("Removal" was not the issue, however. She explained: "My mother'll kill me.")

"Clothed," said Quinn, when asked how she hoped to be portrayed, the choices and commensurate rewards being: "Clothed, $100; semi-nude, $200, and nude, $300.

One at a time they struggled through the bulk and clamor of the media, cameramen, sound men, light men, reporters who had jammed the suite to the point of a human version of gridlock -- that rush-hour apocalypse when all intersections become jammed with cars and no one can move in any direction.

In the bedroom, David Chan posed Quinn, Casciano et al on a windowsill, adjusting hair or arms with a proprietary ease.

"Smile with your eyes!" "Flash! "Thank you."

Schtick, click, thank-you, chick. In a couple of weeks, after fervent consultation with an entity Chan referred to only as "Chicago," no doubt meaning Playboy headquarters, he would return to further photograph 40 of these hundreds. Flash, cash, and let those teeth downstairs gnash.

They chanted: "Women in government are upward bound/Don't let Playboy drag you down!" Most of the protestors would have qualified, physically, for a place in the sun of David Chan's flashgun (thus quieting quibbles about feminists motivated purely by envy.)

"We're concerned about the impact of a feature like this on the 740,000 women in the federal government," said Revo-Cohen. "The implication of it will be that once you strip them of their jobs, clothes and GS ratings, they're as available as anybody else."

a male listener ventured that if he were stripped of his job and clothes, he'd be as available as anybody else, too.

"But you'd be more than just a body," said Revo-Cohen.

"Yes," said the male listener. "I prefer to think of myself as more than just a pretty face."

One demonstrator said the supervisor at her government agency had opposed the picketting on grounds that it would only give publicity to Playboy.

"We thought that controversy through very carefully but we decided that something has to be said," said Revo-Cohen.

Upstairs, Patty Quinn looked deeply into David Chan's Polaroid and smiled. Then it was over.

"Piece of cake," she said.

While women filled out applications complete with bust and cup size, Chan worked the crowd, shaking hands with his left hand ("They squeeze so hard on the right,") and letting a receptionist answer the phone and hold his 13-year-old Lhasa Apso, Mei Ling ("Pretty Lady"), in her lap.

Chan rattled off a First Amendment spiel with the speed of a tobacco auctioneer, being glad the issue was raised, especially here in Washington where fundamental rights have to be exercised in order to remain strong etc., etc.

A TV reporter commented on the amazing coincidence that he, too, owned a Lhasa Apso whose name in Yiddish meant pretty lady/Mei Ling.

"Are you Hebrew?" Chan asked.

The reporter was Catholic, but his wife was Jewish and . . .

"Yes, we're all premitted to believe what we believe, you just believe what you think is right, we all live in a free Western country . . ."

And so on while the receptionist looked for a piece of tape to pin to the wall Appendix B of the Federal Personnel Manual dealing with Misconduct Generally.

And a good thing, too. Downstairs, the FEW picketers had tired, grown hungry, and learned that no one was coming to replace them, warning of the dangers of "removal."

"We're going to go inside for lunch," said Revo-Cohen. "The manager was kind enough to give us this iced mineral water gratis, so we figured it was the least we could do."