The trouble with cultivating an image of journalistic raffishness, such as the one enjoyed by the New York Post, is credibility: It publishes a piece of serious reportage, and nobody takes it seriously. Such was the case last week, when the Post uncovered an astonishing exercise in bigotry and antisemitism masquerading as free academic expression; at first just about everyone kept at arm's length, and it wasn't until days later that responsible parties -- if "responsible" is the word for them -- began to deal, however gingerly, with the questions raised by the story.

It first appeared in last Monday's New York Post: a report of a speech delivered by Leonard Jeffries Jr., a professor at the City College of New York and chairman of its African American studies department. The speech was given on July 20 to the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival in Albany; it was sponsored by the State University of New York's African-American Institute and the governor's advisory committee on black affairs.

Apparently the speech was just about as long as an address by Fidel Castro -- two hours! -- and even loonier. Ostensibly speaking to the question of Afro-centric education, Jeffries launched into a tirade against whites generally and Jews specifically. He said that there has been "a conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood {by} people called Greenberg and Weisberg and Trigliani," and that "Russian Jewry had a particular control over the movies, and their financial partners, the Mafia, put together a financial system of destruction of black people."

That's not the half of it. Jeffries turned history upside down and informed his audience that "everyone knows rich Jews helped finance the slave trade." He also focused his attention on Diane Ravitch, formerly professor of teaching and education at Teachers College, Columbia, now assistant U.S. secretary of education. Ravitch, who is one of the most thoughtful, articulate and persuasive critics of "multiculturalism," was dismissed by Jeffries as "a sophisticated, debonair racist" and "a Texas Jew."

None of this, and there was lots more, was a figment of the Post's occasionally lurid imagination. It had originally been broadcast over NY-SCAN, a cable television station, and it had been videotaped. The Post merely transcribed Jeffries' remarks and reported them in a straightforward manner. But because the Post was the source, the story seemed dubious in some eyes -- mine, I am embarrassed to admit, among them -- and it wasn't until two days later, when the New York Times lumbered in with its own report, that the authenticity of the original story was confirmed.

Still, the real or fancied opprobrium attached to the Post's masthead enabled one of Jeffries' supporters, A.J. Williams-Myers, to tell the Times that "we need to look at the origin of the fervor in the first place," by which he meant not Jeffries but the Post -- a clear case of ignoring the news and shooting the messenger. Williams-Myers, who is director of the aforementioned African-American Institute, said the Post was "race-baiting" and urged Jeffries' critics to "address the motives" of the newspaper.

But even should those motives be proved to be baser than base, yellow journalism run amok, it remains that neither Williams-Myers nor anyone else, much less Jeffries, has denied either the substance or the specifics of the speech. Not merely that, but another of his defenders -- Donald H. Smith, chairman of the department of education at Bernard M. Baruch College -- went so far as to call Jeffries "a very fine scholar" and to claim that "if his remarks were, as the governor said, 'inaccurate,' then it is up to other scholars to do research to rebut it."

But how, pray tell, does one "rebut" racism and antisemitism? These are matters not of scholarship, of proof and disproof, but of fantasy and hatred, neither of which is in the least susceptible to rational inquiry or argument. Jeffries is a "very fine scholar" who in all seriousness believes that blacks are intellectually superior to whites because they have more melanin in their skin -- a form of racist claptrap similar in tone and spirit to the racial-superiority theories drummed up by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council and other publicists for white supremacy. How can one expect a "scholar" in thrall to such hallucination to entertain disagreement, no matter how respectful or persuasive?

But if you doubt that Jeffries possesses a scholarly mind, tell that to the ranking officials of the City University of New York, of which City College is a part. Although Jeffries' race-baiting harangues have been a familiar part of CUNY life for years, this has not prevented him from gaining both tenure and the chairmanship of his department, not to mention a following at City College as, in the Times' description, "a popular, flamboyant lecturer."

More than that, what this has gained him in the current circumstances is the exceeding reluctance of all but a few at City College or CUNY to speak out forthrightly against the garbage he retailed in Albany last month. Thus the president of the college, Bernard W. Harleston, issued from the sanctuary of vacation a cautious statement lamenting any remarks by anyone that "undermine another racial or ethnic group," but also said that "the college must ... insure the right of its faculty and students to express their ideas without fear of institutional censorship."

There we go again: "academic freedom." It's the smoke screen behind which Jeffries hides and the justification given both by his defenders and by those too cowardly to oppose him. But talk such as Jeffries engaged in at Albany has nothing to do with "ideas" -- it's bigotry pure and simple -- and nothing to do with academic freedom. He's fully entitled to his absurd prejudices, and if he wants to shout them to the rooftops that's his business, but he scarcely deserves either the gloss of legitimacy that tenure provides or the endorsement implicit in state financing.

It is here that the Jeffries case differs from that of Douglas Hann, a student who was expelled from Brown University for exercising his inalienable right to make an ass of himself in public. Hann's anti-black and antisemitic ravings were every bit as offensive as Jeffries' anti-white ones, but he was not speaking as an employee or representative of his institution. Jeffries does, not merely in his solo shot at Albany but in his continuing classroom appearances, so City College would therefore be entirely within its rights in disciplining or dismissing him. Unfortunately, though, those rights are compromised by official timidity and by the ironclad strictures of tenure, which severely limit an institution's ability to rid itself of unwanted or incompetent faculty members.

All of which probably means that once this little storm has blown over Jeffries will be back at the same old stand, vilifying whites and Jews and anyone else of whom he disapproves, under the aegis of his City College professorship. No doubt a slap on the wrist will be administered, but not much more than that. Jeffries has a constituency, after all, and college administrators can always disappear behind "academic freedom" if the alternative is giving offense to any element in the tense "multicultural" coalition that now rules on the campuses. If Jews don't fit into the coalition, well, that's just their tough luck.

The irony of this is both exquisite and painful. For nearly a century City College was a bright shining light for Jewish students in New York -- "the haven of Jewish minds," as Irving Howe puts it in his book, "World of Our Fathers." Jewish students "loved the place, loved it utterly, hopelessly, blindly," Howe writes, and quotes a member of an early class: "We knew it as gospel truth that this plain College was for each of us a passport to a higher and ennobled life." But that was 1906; this is 1991, and the passport has been rescinded.