When journalists, newspapers and broadcast stations are caught in the coils of a libel suit, they are sometimes able to escape by claiming that the offending passages are opinion -- mere opinion -- and therefore protected by the First Amendment. And when lower court judges have so ruled, the case is thrown out on summary judgment. No trial, no further expenses.

Until June 22, however, the Supreme Court had never directly ruled on whether there is a special exemption in libel suits for -- as Chief Justice Rehnquist put it -- "anything that might be labeled opinion." The court, in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal, has now declared that there is no such "wholesale" exemption. The two dissenters, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, agreed, but said that the statements in this particular case were opinion and should have been harbored under the First Amendment.

This ruling does not mean that defense attorneys in defamation cases can no longer claim that a client was just expressing an opinion, however sharp-edged. But if the words at issue also contain factual implications that can be proved or disproved -- unlike mere opinion -- the case is much more likely to go all the way to trial.

There is much apprehension among some journalists that this Supreme Court decision will either inhibit their more robust metaphors or -- even if they try to be circumspect -- they will wind up in the dock more often.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court had little choice in view of the facts and alleged opinions in the case that came before the justices. A sports writer, J. Theodore Diadiun, wrote of a high school wrestling coach's testimony at a hearing concerning a melee in which he and his team were allegedly involved:

"Anyone who attended the meet . . . knows in his heart that {Coach Michael} Milkovich . . . lied at the hearing after . . . having given his solemn oath to tell the truth. But {he} got away with it."

This was hardly mere opinion -- or even primarily opinion. The strong implication was factual -- that the coach perjured himself. And that is provable, or not.

So, after 15 years of hopscotching up and down the state and lower federal courts, Coach Milkovich is going to be able to go to trial, where his burden will be to prove that what was written about him was false. It is a burden he welcomes.

One of my hopelessly losing causes is in support of Justice Hugo Black's conviction that all defamation suits are in violation of the First Amendment. The Framers, so often lauded for the clarity of their language, made no exception in the First Amendment for defamation or obscenity or "fighting words" or any of the other judge-made tinkerings with that beacon unto the world.

As Justice Black -- slamming his hand on his desk as he opened his blue-covered pocket edition of the Constitution -- used to thunder: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." And he would hit the desk again: "NO LAW MEANS NO LAW!"

But since "no law" has come to mean "some laws," and therefore defamation suits have been permitted to distend the First Amendment, fairness is due plaintiffs as well as defendants in those suits too.

It is no small thing to strongly imply that someone has lied under oath. It hardly enhances his or her credibility in all other things in the community. While the statement is certainly opinion, it may also appear to the reasonable fact-finder -- that ubiquitous faceless figure in the law -- to be based on prickly provable fact. The coach will now get a chance to clear himself -- if he can.

The Supreme Court decision will almost certainly cut down on the number of summary judgments in libel cases in the courts below, as judges define "opinion" more narrowly. And that can be most unfortunate because increasingly, non-journalists -- citizens who write letters to the editor or speak out at town meetings -- are being hit with intimidation libel suits by real estate developers and producers of toxic waste, among other plaintiffs with deep pockets.

Even if they win summary judgment, these lay defendants -- without the resources of newspapers and broadcast stations behind them -- suffer legal costs so high that many never again say a word of public criticism concerning public issues.

The effect on them of this decision indicates that it is not so much that bad cases make bad laws as that some bad cases should be settled before they affect the entire nation.