Leave it to U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to define the situation. After announcing that she would not accept an award from Barnard College and would not be a commencement speaker at Smith College, she observed that the colleges more or less belonged to the students and they did not want her. Precisely.

It was a point, though, that seemed to elude many others. Instead, grave issues of academic freedom, not to mention freedom of speech, have been raised and the '60s, with all their campus demonstrations, exhumed. Columns have been written about a "spate" of campus demonstrations in which poor Kirkpatrick has been chased hither and yon, each time denied the right to speak. There have been exactly two of these cases.

The first occurred at the University of Minnesota and the second at Berkeley and they were both despicable. In each case, Kirkpatrick was invited to speak and then denied the opportunity to do so. That really did abridge her right to free speech but, since it is universities we are talking about, it also abridged the right of others to learn. After all, the lady has something to say and a terrific way of saying it. She is worth listening to.

But that was it--all of it, as far as Kirkpatrick was concerned. No matter. Typewriters smoked indignation anyway. A non-existent epidemic of rude behavior and intolerance was reported to have swept the nation's campuses. Much was written that in turn prompted commentaries and rebuttals. It seems safe to say that not since Jerry Ford convinced himself that swine flu was going to kill us all, has so much been made of so little.

This seems the appropriate place to propound the Kirkpatrick Rule. When she is the center of the controversy, the dispute is never about the subject at hand, but about Vietnam. This is the case with her Central American policy, which besides being about Central America is an opportunity for everyone to argue Vietnam all over again. And this happens to be the case with the current mountain-out-of-a- molehill flap about free speech. Maybe because she is a good neoconservative, Kirkpatrick became the catalyst to transform two isolated acts of rudeness into a controversy about campus intolerance a la the Vietnam era.

But look again. This is 1983 and the campuses, instead of being hotbeds of activism and occasional rudeness, are instead hotbeds of apathy. It's sleepy time around the old student union and neither a punishing domestic policy nor a threatening foreign policy seems enough to rouse the campuses from their torpor. The long-haired and radical enemies of free speech have departed the field. Today's college students are not yesterday's, and it is really unfair to spank them for the abuses of their predecessors. Among other things, it might wake them up.

And it is equally unfair to take every campus incident involving Kirkpatrick and turn it into a First Amendment issue. The issue at Smith and Barnard, as far as the students were concerned, was whether their graduation or their school (it is, after all, both their graduation and their school) would honor a person whose views they abhor. Graduates comprise a captive audience with limited choices. They can choose to stay away or choose to change the speaker. Since a student graduates but once while Kirkpatrick talks frequently, the choice seemed obvious.

Students at neither college heckled Kirkpatrick into silence. Students at neither college abridged her right to free speech and students at neither college behaved in such a manner that would convince Kirkpatrick that her safety would be in danger. We are talking, after all, of two tony women's colleges, and we are talking also of a woman who, if I judge her right, does not scare easy.

So the issue is not some imaginary intolerance that is sweeping the nation's campuses, but instead an attempt by some to shoehorn all student protest into some sort of Vietnam-era stereotype. These critics are so busy living in the past, they're not listening to what some students are saying now. They say they don't want to honor Kirkpatrick. That's not an abridgement of the First Amendment. That's a different expression of it.