William Byrnes, an attorney for the Pacifica Radio stations, has forced the Federal Communications Commission to concede that James Joyce's "Ulysses" is a "classic work." The FCC was responding to his request that it tell a Pacifica station, WBAI-FM in New York, whether it could go ahead and broadcast the work's earthy and ecstatic conclusion, Molly Bloom's soliloquy, on June 16.

The station has been broadcasting the soliloquy and other parts of "Ulysses" on June 16, "Bloomsday," for the past five years. But in view of the new FCC standards of "indecency," WBAI feared being fined or put in danger of losing its license if it used its own judgment as to whether Molly Bloom, at 11 at night, could celebrate the life force without traumatizing children or, as they used to say in Boston, frightening the horses.

The new FCC standards are so vague and overbroad as to make Humpty Dumpty a member of the commission. ("When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more or less.") Still, WBAI might have been emboldened by the fact that words which otherwise could have brought it up on charges are an integral part of a very serious act of literature.

On the other hand, James McKinney, chief of the FCC's mass media bureau, had said at the National Public Radio Conference in early May that even if a work has serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value, the commission might nonetheless find it indecent. How does a station know it has crossed the dim line? A spokesman for the FCC told reporters from the Los Angeles Times: "We have nothing to tell them -- that 'This is okay' and 'This is not okay.' Basically we're going to react to programming when there's a complaint {and each situation} will be considered on a case-by-case basis."

Imagine putting out a newspaper in that state of perpetual fog.

WBAI was also aware that James Quello, a dynamic member of the FCC, had told The Wall Street Journal that the language in "Ulysses" is "stuff you deck someone over. I'm amazed it made it as a classic." He thought Molly Bloom is probably indecent.

Finally, last week, FCC mass media chief James McKinney wrote to WBAI's lawyer, William Byrnes, and noted that context is, by golly, a matter of some importance to the commission. But, McKinney added, the FCC is not going to approve or disapprove a broadcast before it goes on the air. Why, that would be prior restraint.

The FCC much prefers these days to issue "indecency" regulations so slippery that they compel broadcasters to censor themselves rather than take the chance of incurring the displeasure of such FCC apparatchiks as Mr. McKinney. Brandishing his sword at the National Public Radio Conference, he said: "There's nothing that requires us to give you a warning before we take a harsher action . . . also, don't forget the fact that a warning in your file at renewal time can be extremely dangerous."

If Fidel Castro had any sense of freedom, let alone humor, he'd build a station beamed at us, and call it Radio Free America.

Meanwhile, the FCC is now faced with a petition for reconsideration of its dragnet indecency rules. Joining the petition are among others, Action for Children's Television, ABC, CBS and NBC, National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Washington Post-Newsweek stations, People for the American Way, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Attorney Timothy Dyk, who wrote a very precise indictment of these vastly imprecise rules, notes in the petition that the commission's new ukase has "no counterpart in any other area of First Amendment jurisprudence" because it provides no guidance at all as to "the constitutional scope of the term 'indecent.' "

The petition also says that the commission, not the stations, must adequately and constitutionally define "indecency," and the petitioners want the commission to go back to a clear time -- 10 p.m. -- after which material that is meant for adults can be broadcast, with prior warnings. This concept of "channeling" material, however, gives the government power over editorial matters, and that, as William O. Douglas used to say, is precisely what broadcasters should keep fighting against on all fronts.

More clarifications are asked for in this petition. It is unfortunate, however, that the signers -- except for Action for Children's Television -- did not also join in Pacifica's case in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. That suit attacks an arbitrary and ignorant FCC punishment of a Pacifica station on the ground that it contravenes the First Amendment. ACT came in to show that you can be simultaneously concerned with children and opposed to repressive vagueness.