The current public printer, Danford L. Sawyer Jr., has given a new and sinister meaning to an old and honorable term in the printing industry: "printer's devil."

There is a lot of fury and motion surrounding Sawyer's assault on the integrity, jobs and wages of the employees of the Government Printing Office. There are a lot of changes and dollar figures tossed around, most of them grossly distorted or plainly false, but the central issue is clear.

Shall the public printer abide by the law or shall he have free rein -- free from both Congress and the executive branch -- to do as he pleases with the printing plant that is owned by all the American people?

There are several laws that Sawyer believes he can ignore with impunity: labor laws that require an employer to negotiate in good faith with his employees; the Keiss Act, which establishes the Joint Committee on Printing as the final and binding arbitrator of disputes between the public printer and GPO employees; and a higher law, the Commandment that admonishes: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

There is a more important issue: respect for law. Desite promises to the contrary during confirmation hearings, Sawyer now claims a unilateral right to furlough employees whenever he wants for as long as he wants. July 6 -- immediately after the holiday honoring the end of arbitrary rule in America, is the date he has set for a furlough. (A June 1 furlough was cancelled because there was too much work).

The Joint Committee -- which by law is the public printer's boss -- told him to keep his promises to the public and to prove that his furloughs were necessary. His answer was to charge (falsely) that some members of the Joint Committee received contributions to their campaigns from GPO employee unions, so they are not pure enough to judge him.

He also says GPO is losing money. But a May 30 financial summary shows that so far in fiscal 1982, GPO is in the black. In fact, his financial experts -- when pressed by a congressional committee about alleged losses -- admitted they were giving only their best guess, based on the amount of work they felt Congress would generate.

He says GPO printers are the highest paid in the western world. That's poppycock. On Jan. 1, 1982, the average wage for union compositors was $14.35 at GPO -- compared with an average wage in 11 major U.S. cities in 1981 of $14.57 an hour. And GPO printers proudly point out that there are no printers who can match their ability to produce and distribute the Congressional Record overnight. Sawyer himself, in a moment of extreme candor, said that "the fact that they can actually produce the work they do in the time span is close to miraculous."

Sawyer also says the Joint Committee always sides with the union. Since 1972, the committee has ratified the contract proposal of the public printer six times; once agreed with a fact-finder on a compromise; and twice the parties reached agreement before the committee had to act. Not once in the past 10 years has the committee decided for the unions. Sawyer also has had the audacity to attack the committee chairman, Sen. Charles Mathias of Maryland, for meddling in his collective bargaining activities.

Sawyer has alleged that GPO printers destroyed punched computer tapes so they could reset the work to preserve jobs. That would be a criminal offense, and while the charge sounds great when made to a cheering anti-labor audience, or when reported by a gullible columnist, the allegation is completely false.

All of Sawyer's charges, distortions of figures and political games are ruses to divert attention from the real issue: whether the public printer has to obey the law. He says he wants to lay off the entire GPO staff for six days, cut salaries by 22 percent and abolish the right of unions to bargain with him on these and othr issues. He has also indicated the possibility of firing as many as 2,000 GPO employees. When the Joint Committee -- the legal authority -- instructs him to check with Congress, he in effect tells the members to drop dead.

Sawyer may not like the law. He may not like unions. He may not like collective bargaining. He may not like being an employee of the legislative branch and responsible to a congressional committee. But this is not a question of one man's likes and dislikes. It is a question of law. Danford Sawyer should obey it.