One of the things about censorship is that it creeps up on you. Censors have a way of putting the heat on something fairly obnoxious and then before you know it, everything else is a potential target. It all comes down to a matter of taste and judgment and when the censors hold the upper hand, it comes down to a matter of their taste, and their judgment, and, pretty soon, a bunch of guilt-ridden religionists is deciding what the rest of us should and should not read.

This is precisely what is going on now with fundamentalist assaults on the nation's newsstands.

The Rev. Donald Wildmon is executive director of something called the National Federation of Decency. Last October, at a hearing sponsored by the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, he testified that "many major players in the game of pornography are well-known household names," and he characterized Playboy and Penthouse as "porn" magazines. He also named Southland Corp., which owns 7-Eleven stores; Peoples Drug Stores, and Dart Drug Stores as distributors of pornography. (And here we all thought organized crime was behind it!) Subsequently, the commission sent a letter to 23 corporations notifying them that they had been identified as sellers of pornography and indicating that they might be so listed in the panel's final report. The letter did not identify Wildmon as the person giving the testimony, which was, it's worth noting, unsworn.

One result of the letter was that more than 10,000 stores across the country, including 7-Elevens, decided not to sell Playboy and Penthouse. Another was a lawsuit brought by Playboy and publishing trade groups against the commission. The day the commission went out of the business, a federal judge ruled that it had violated the First Amendment with its "implied threat" that the stores might be listed as distributors of pornography. He ordered the commission to notify recipients of the letter that it was being withdrawn.

Playboy's lawyer, Bruce J. Ennis, said in court that six major chains stopped selling Playboy and 34 retailers that did not receive the letter followed suit. "Never before in the history of our country have so many stores stopped selling so many publications in such a short time." He said that other magazines such as Texas Monthly and Cosmopolitan have been forced off newsstands. All of this because of some ludicrous allegations by somebody most of us have never heard of.

Now comes the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, another well-known literary critic. He criticized at least one rock magazine in a TV broadcast that was aired on June 1. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, he recalled that in the broadcast he had said the magazine "can be bought by children of all ages at places like Wal-Mart, K mart, the grocery store and practically any other retail store that sells magazines."

Twelve days later, Wal-Mart ordered its 890 stores to remove 32 rock magazines from the racks. A spokeswoman says there's no connection between the broadcast and the removal of the magazines, and chalked this historical happenstance up to a "merchandizing decision." This same company made a similar merchandizing decision in May to remove from its record racks a number of albums by heavy metal artists and comedians such as Eddie Murphy.

There are several lessons to be learned from the resurgence of censorship that is going on now. One is that television makes this a much more dangerous phenomenon than in the past, simply because these self-anointed protectors of the public can reach huge numbers of the faithful and crank them up to pester anyone who is selling or doing something they don't like. Two is that the captains of industry who cave in to this kind of pressure are creating an atmosphere in which censorship is flourishing and doing the country no service at all. And three is that the fundamentalists, if they are successful, are going to drive a number of these publications straight out of business, so it's not a matter of where you buy them but whether you can buy them at all.

In my office is a copy of the August issue of Ladies' Home Journal. The lead article is "Can This Marriage be Saved? I tried too hard to please him." In the fundamentalist creed that holds women to be subservient to men, that article could be easily viewed as threatening to the family. Many women's magazines celebrate the strengths and accomplishments of women. Who is to say they won't be next? And that's the fourth and most important lesson, which is that once you start listening to the howl of the censors, you can't shut them up.