The conservative columnists are bellyaching. One reason is that Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick has been hooted down--almost--on two college campuses. And they're absolutely right to complain in her case or in any instance where a speaker is prevented, or nearly prevented, from saying her piece--by anyone.

Kirkpatrick has had three difficult and unpleasant such occasions this year. She didn't deserve them; nobody deserves such treatment.

In fact, she has earned some praise in my book, and gratitude. She is one of the few of high rank in the Reagan administration willing to take her views on the road, in one public forum after another, and not by invitation only or advance distribution of tickets to people who must supply their names and addresses. She's out there giving administration policy and her own thoughts on a host of issues.

That I find nearly everything she says appalling, astounding and disagreeable is not the point. In this case there are two items of significance: she, like every other human being, is entitled to speak her views; she is an official who knows and influences policy. She informs our thinking and understanding of what is going on in government. Are we satisfied with the decisions it makes, proofs it offers and actions it takes?

The ambassador assists our evaluation, and she hasn't been scared off of the campus podium. She has three commencement speeches scheduled for late spring. Good. We can't afford to have government officials retreat into videotaped canned statements. We need to see and hear the living people. And they need to see and hear us, in turn, in ways that promote discourse.

Colleges and universities are still the right places, the universities of California and Minnesota and the Smith College cancellation notwithstanding.

At Berkeley, Ambassador Kirkpatrick was invited to give the annual Thomas Jefferson Memorial Lectures, which usually entail several days to a month on campus, three to five public lectures, meetings with classes and informal student discussions. She had just returned from El Salvador, scheduled two lectures in two days and a banquet. The events were routinely advertised and produced no reaction in the campus press.

On the day of her first speech, fliers were printed and distributed by "Students Against Intervention in El Salvador." They were, in the words of a campus spokesman, "strong, provocative and the organization was clearly identified." They announced picketing and a "surprise protest" inside Wheeler Auditorium; some had balloons taped to the paper.

At 4 p.m. several pickets with white-painted faces and black gowns came in with more than 800 other people. Six to eight of these costumed figures stood silently throughout; several others were scattered in the audience.

There were plainclothes and uniformed police in the hall and U.S. government security officers on stage. The dean of the law school was heckled when he introduced the speaker. As she began to talk, boos, hisses, shouts and chants rang out--"40,000 dead" when she mentioned El Salvador; "apartheid" when she said South Africa--and continued.

She stepped aside, and the dean took the microphone to say they'd made their point and to ask for quiet so the rest of the audience could hear. The speech and racket resumed, and the dean appealed for "ordinary decency."

Finally Kirkpatrick left the platform to a cry of "Klaus Barbie." The dean admonished the audience and went down into the crowd, speaking to someone who had been yelling shrilly. A young man took the microphone to challenge the anonymous speakers to come forward and dare to state their views openly. Several others spoke directly to hecklers saying their right to hear was being violated.

Kirkpatrick returned to complete her speech to strong applause. The last 30 minutes of her prepared remarks passed with an undertone of protest sounds: air from balloons, groans, inappropriate laughter. The tumult burst forth again in the question period, which the ambassador completed.

She also attended the banquet that evening and decided not to speak the next day. There is some confusion about the discussion that led to her cancellation. The university says that she was urged to speak and promised more security. Her office says that when she asked about security for the next day she was told: no classes would be meeting, a protest of tuition increases was to be held, good weather was expected and her security could not be guaranteed.

Given the fact that a number of people were discussing the matter and that everyone must have been unnerved, it is possible that both versions are correct.

At the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis a few weeks later, a scheduled demonstration of several hundred people took place. Its topic was El Salvador and the Vietnam analogy. At the last minute a number of the demonstrators came into Kirkpatrick's speaking place, some remaining in the back and chanting.

The ambassador said privately she wouldn't go on if she couldn't be heard. Harlan Cleveland, director of the institute, addressed the overflow crowd of 4,000 on freedom of speech and the spirit of Hubert Humphrey. Having prepared beforehand "to appeal to the majority, if necessary," he asked if the audience wanted to hear the speaker. There was strong applause. The chanting stopped. The speaker began.

About a dozen hecklers persisted; at every pause for breath there was shouting--"murderer," "fascist." The crowd did not support the disrupters. There was a lot of "shushing"; one student came to the front and said in a loud voice, "I came to hear the speech."

The ambassador spoke, as scheduled, on the U.N. and took questions on El Salvador. As Cleveland says, "The hecklers accomplished what a speech on the U.N. wouldn't --an enthusiastic standing ovation" for the speaker.

A group of demonstrators who had not been inside later gathered at a building where the ambassador was doing a TV show and waited an hour to applaud her. They "probably disagreed with her," but they didn't like the disruption and admired her courage in speaking under difficult circumstances.

Between the two university appearances, the Smith College incident took place. Last fall the senior class voted to ask Kirkpatrick to be the spring commencement speaker. Later the board of trustees decided, as is often the case, to award her an honorary degree. That decision engendered a lot of campus discussion--not disorder, not in opposition to her speaking, but on the suitability of giving the degree in light of her position on El Salvador. This was an in-house dispute and resulted in a petition opposing the degree.

After Berkeley, the president of the college communicated, indirectly and probably directly, with the ambassador. The ambassador's office says someone "presented her with a fait accompli" since there was fear that there would be "an uncontrollable social problem" and her "safety could not be ensured." She should come some other time.

The college press office says that the president "just laid out the facts and she decided to withdraw." These "facts" were not that the Smith students or faculty would be disruptive, but that it was possible that a large Latin American group, drawn from the five-college area, might show up because it had been staging demonstrations at shopping centers and other public places.

Both agree that the ambassador thought such an occurrence would spoil the graduation. Nobody concerned seems comfortable about what has happened. The board of trustees unanimously reconfirmed its decision to award the degree. The freedom-of-speech people lost out because they won't hear her speak, even those who don't like her policies and opposed the degree; the seniors had to find another speaker. The ambassador hasn't responded to a letter inviting her to speak in the fall. Everyone's nose is out of joint, and all think the affair hurts Smith's reputation.

This is the kind of muddle that can be rectified with a little generosity all around.

The reason for recounting all this past history after the primary point has been made --Kirkpatrick's absolute right to speak without impediment by anyone, for any reason-- is the Henny Penny reaction that the sky is falling, again, in academia.

This is not a return to the '60s disruption that the conservative columnists are pronouncing. It's not even a reverse return to the '50s repression that other conservatives imposed on liberal speakers.

It is something else: perhaps, "positive unity," the opposite of Hannah Arendt's "negative unity." In "On Violence" she wrote:

". . . the extreme form of violence is One against All. And (it is) never possible without instruments. To claim, as is often done, that a tiny unarmed minority has successfully, by means of violence--shouting, kicking up a row, et cetera-- disrupted large lecture classes whose overwhelming majority had voted for normal instruction procedures is a very misleading . . . . What actually happens in such cases is something more serious: the majority clearly refuses to use its power and overpower the disrupters. . . . What the universities are up against is the 'immense negative unity' . . . . The merely onlooking majority, amused by the spectacle of a shouting match between student and professor, is in fact already the latent ally of the minority" (italics added).

In Berkeley and Minnesota, the minority was quelled, albeit imperfectly, by the positive unity of the majority. The speaker was applauded, got a standing ovation; students rose to confront hecklers; faculty moderators took to the microphones, called the audience to principle, upbraided undemocratic behavior; and the speaker spoke. It was not idyllic for her; it was awful. But she stood her ground, not only because she wanted to speak, but because the majority wanted to hear her.

The conservatives are right to thunder on behalf of free speech in these instances. But the universities are not, as one columnist wrote, "provinces of bitterness, extremism and anti-democratic values."

It may be that those who forget the past are destined to relive it. It may also be that those who fail to see the present are destined forever to live in fear of the past.