It was just a piece of paper tossed in the fireplace of a conference room at the U.S. Supreme Court.

But when ABC's Tim O'Brien picked it up Thursday afternoon and read a very private assessment of cases in progress, he set off tremors at the nation's highest court -- from the lofty offices of Chief Justice William Rehnquist all the way down to the humble quarters assigned to the media.

O'Brien, whose colleagues know him as the enfant terrible and scoopmeister of the Supreme Court press corps, had been filming the empty conference room where the justices decide cases when he spotted the paper.

"I had asked for permission to take pictures of the conference room, any time at their convenience," O'Brien said yesterday. "As it turned out, they let me in right after the conference had ended, and at the top of that heap of trash, in plain view, was the outcome and authors of some of the more important cases. I couldn't believe it was there. I picked it up and took a look."

A press aide whose job it is to throw her body between O'Brien and any such unreleased papers quickly told him to put it back, then became alarmed that he had read the document. When she talked to a supervisor, the press office decided to "shut down the filming," as one aide put it.

Within minutes, court insiders began to hear that Chief Justice Rehnquist's staff was upset. And some journalists became concerned that what is a peccadillo at worst in the list of possible journalistic sins may have halted forever the slow thawing of relations between the court and its following of reporters.

"I'm very upset, because I think the court was just beginning to loosen up and this is going to put us back in the Stone Age," said Nina Totenberg, who covers the court for National Public Radio. "This is a completely paranoid institution that is just beginning to see the light of day a little bit ... If you expect not to be treated like a second-story private detective, then you can't act like one."

Totenberg's view was shared by some of those covering the court. Others favored the approach of Lyle Denniston of the Baltimore Sun. He said that even though that particular conference room is a kind of inner sanctum of the court, "a resourceful journalist, if he hadn't promised away his opportunities, he should have used his eyes as much as he could."

Although O'Brien will not reveal what he saw on the list of upcoming decisions, his press-room peers say that the ABC News reporter has been predicting decisions on a dispute about whether "creationism" should be taught along with evolution, an important criminal case and one that was decided yesterday that looked at how much citizens should be allowed to sass police officers.

But there may be one case that O'Brien is particularly interested in this session. It is a determination of whether the police can go through someone's garbage or whether those items discarded for the trash man are considered private even in the dumpster.

"One of the ironies here is that he was essentially going through the court's trash," said Denniston.

O'Brien said yesterday he has decided not to use the information on the air.

"I think you could make the case that it would be improper for me to use the information I got there," he said. "As long as that is so, I would rather err on the side of discretion."

"The question is how important is the info. If I had gotten evidence of wrongdoing, this would be a much tougher call," O'Brien added.

Among press officials at the court, it will not be such a tough call next time O'Brien wants to film there. As Supreme Court press officer Toni House put it yesterday, "I would say that an ABC crew would be welcome in there and Tim O'Brien would not."

The Times' 'Gay' Ruling The New York Times has decided the word "gay" is now fit to print.

But the reference to a homosexual may be used only as an adjective, never as a noun, according to the man who has long been the court of last resort on what is acceptable at the paper, Assistant Managing Editor Allan M. Siegal.

In his memo to all news desks yesterday, Siegal wrote that the word could be used in references to "cultural patterns and political issues" such as gay rights, gay literature or the gay community. But the noun will continue to be homosexual, Siegal's memo said.

"Gay men are homosexuals but not gays," Siegal wrote, adding that "even as an adjective, homosexual will remain preferred in specific references to sexual activity or psychological or clinical orientation."

Formerly The Times allowed the word gay -- which many dictionaries define as "light-hearted, joyous, showy, bright-colored, dissipated, dissolute," with homosexual as the colloquialism -- only in quotes and in names of organizations.

Thomas B. Stoddard, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization that works for civil rights of gays and lesbians, said, "There are many gay people who will be elated by this news ...

"In accepting this word, The Times is at least in some degree legitimating the existence of the gay rights movement, because gay is the word that the movement has chosen to describe itself ... The significance is not merely linguistic, it is also political."

Disputing Moynihan If journalists worry sometimes that they might not be able to transfer their skills to other professions, they will get little relief on learning about the brief political career of Harrison Lee Rainie.

Rainie, a 13-year veteran of the New York Daily News, became the administrative assistant to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) on March 9. Almost three months later to the day, he submitted his resignation.

Although there may have been other reasons, the most public one was a session between the senator and the New York state press on June 5, when a reporter from The Buffalo News wanted to know who had given an order to have him excluded from one of Moynihan's briefings.

The reporter, Douglas Turner, had written an article about how lecture fees and payments for articles by Moynihan were being used by the senator.

"There were certainly no orders by me," Moynihan said that day.

When pressed, Moynihan called Assistant Press Secretary Molly Phee to the front of the room to explain. Phee said she had indeed told a reporter that she was instructed not to invite Turner but, maybe, she misunderstood the senator's orders.

"Me?" Moynihan said indignantly. "But I didn't even talk to you about it. What do you mean you misunderstood me?"

At that point, Rainie broke in: "She got that instruction from me, and I had gotten that impression from you."

When Moynihan toyed with the word "impression," Rainie added: "Sir, that was a direct order from you."

Moynihan: "Did I say that?"

Rainie: "Yes, you did."

"If I did, then I'm sorry," the senator said.

Five days later, a remarkably long time given this exchange, Rainie submitted and Moynihan "reluctantly agreed" to his resignation.