Nat Hentoff's well-known veneration of the First Amendment not only verges on but at times strays into the absolute. Thus it was hardly surprising to find him paying public tribute (once again) to Justice William Brennan {op-ed, Jan. 2}. After all, who on the court since William O. Douglas' departure has gone to such extremes as Judge Brennan in elevating free speech above all other competing constitutional values -- including, at times, the nation's security?

However, what was surprising was to catch Mr. Hentoff allowing his libertarian opinions on the First Amendment to color his presentation of the facts in the Morison spy case.

In Mr. Hentoff's description, Samuel Loring Morison -- who was convicted for passing secrets to the media -- comes off as just another high-minded whistle-blower, someone who leaked, in Mr. Hentoff's words, "to get public support for more funds for America's Navy." But while that may have been Mr. Morison's defense at trial, a federal judge and jury didn't buy it, and neither should readers of The Post.

The facts are that Mr. Morison was unhappy working for the government and was actively seeking employment at the British journal to which he leaked top secret information. Mr. Morison for purely venal and personal motives deliberately handed over classified material he had been entrusted with. Moreover, even if Mr. Morison's intention had not been to harm the nation's security but to provoke public debate, it shouldn't have mattered. When published, leaked information is made available not just to the American public but to everyone -- including hostile foreign powers. The result -- damage to the nation's security -- is the same in both cases.

Contrary to Mr. Hentoff's dire prophecy, if the Supreme Court decides to uphold Mr. Morison's conviction its decision will not stifle free debate. Rather it will succeed in reminding those in government positions of public trust of a duty all too often overlooked since the 1960s -- namely that the orderly functioning of government depends upon trust.

If each employee can function as the public's conscience and take it upon himself to leak sensitive defense information using the First Amendment as a shield to avoid responsibility for his actions, our democracy may become a short-lived experiment.

MICHAEL P. McDONALD President, Legal Studies Division Washington Legal Foundation Washington