A FREE PRESS means different things to different people. It can also mean different things at different times in the life of a single person.

For instance, every student of a free press knows that Thomas Jefferson would have chosen newspapers without a government over a government without newspapers. But it is useful to remember that later in his life -- under some provocation -- Jefferson also said, "That man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed that he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehood and error."

You can see this phenomenon in a sharp light in Eastern Europe, which has been without a free press and free journalists for two generations. There, the new democratic governments have already begun to redefine freedom of the press to suit the new realism they face as rulers instead of subjects.

Early this month a number of editors from some high-profile U.S. newspapers met in a Prague suburb with a group of editors from the democratic press of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union. We had gathered to listen to each other under the sponsorship of the Center for Foreign Journalists and Harvard University's Nieman Foundation.

The Americans were especially aware of the differences: We had been handed freedom at the start of our careers as casually as we were given pencils and notebooks, while the East Europeans had fought tooth and nail for the same advantages. So we were reluctant to offer much advice, not sure how relevant our own experiences might be. We worried aloud about where they would find enlightened owners, where they would find reporters after 40 years of communist discipline and how they would get along with their new governments.

We certainly had not traveled behind the former Iron Curtain to lecture anyone about the virtues of First Amendment freedoms. Nor had we traveled that far to be lectured to about freedom of the press, either -- but a lecture is exactly what we got. Given the audience, the words were particularly inflammatory.

First came Vaclav Havel himself, the charismatic playwright/journalist who came out of jail to lead Czechoslovokia's "Velvet Revolution" and, ultimately, win the presidency.

"You are the representatives of the most significant world newspapers," he told us, "and I would like you to pass over your experiences as quickly as possible to our press, which is only learning to be free."

So far, so good.

But then the president added this:

"That means that our press understands the concept of freedom of expression only as a kind of private detective's job, who is searching for sensations, and from time to time it forgets . . . that the freedom is only one side of the coin, where the other side is represented by responsibility."

After so many years of experience, I have found that American editors get a little scratchy when they hear presidents talk about "sensationalism" and "responsibility." We would all swear that we believe in responsibility and we deplore sensationalism, but, still, we like to deplore it more than we like to hear it deplored. We are reminded of President Eisenhower and his thoughts on "sensation-seeking columnists."

On the next day of the conference the lecture seemed to resume.

This time the speaker was Michael Zantowsky, Havel's charming, gregarious press secretary and a former Reuter correspondent until the Velvet Revolution landed him and Havel in the drivers' seats.

Zantowsky paid obeisance to the First Amendment -- almost mandatory in any gathering of American journalists. "Everyone has experienced the contribution the free press has made at times," he said, "especially at a time of crisis, to preserving democracy, to preserving freedom. But everyone has also experienced how much damage it can cause, because journalists wield some very, very powerful tools and these tools can hurt when they are . . . not used right."

My colleagues looked at each other uncomfortably. There was "movement in the crowd," the expression used by the old-line communist press to describe an unfavorable reaction in the audience.

Zantowsky warmed to his task, obviously delighting in our discomfort. In fact, he said, they had been talking among themselves about sending journalists to jail under certain conditions.

"Freedom of the press is a very essential thing and one of the best safeguards of the welfare of a democratic society," he continued. "You may not agree with me when I say that it is also a sacred cow, largely of the press's own making," and that the press "has nurtured for years to build a protective wall around itself."

More movement in the crowd.

Zantowsky then told three stories. He said he wasn't sure what they meant but he felt they illustrated how he felt. We too were not sure what they meant, but felt they could be early warnings of threats to the new Czech freedom and that, at the very least, they were at odds with what we understood to be freedom of the press.

His first story involved a Czech journalist who wrote an article in late June to the effect that more booze had been consumed in the Hradcany Castle during the first six months of the Havel administration than had been consumed by the previous governments in 10 years.

"It caused us to work very hard because we weren't quite sure," Zantowsky said. "We had to check and go through the invoices 10 years back, and found out we were quite modest about our drinking. We actually drank much more soft drinks than hard liquor or wine, unlike the previous government."

"So we're going to sue the bastard," the president's spokesman announced with glee.

The Havel government, of course, is mindful of the legalities required by its newly democratized institutions -- up to a point. It plans to start civil proceedings (rather than criminal) against the offending journalist for libel. But, said Zankowsky, the offending journalist "will be sentenced to apologize in print in public in the same spot in the paper that the article was published."

No talk about any trial, or any jury, or the possibility of a not-guilty verdict. No concern that the sentence had already been decided by the palace, not the judge. And no acknowledgement that democracies don't, as a rule, sue journalists. (In fact, the last U.S. attorney general to sue journalists, in the Pentagon Papers case, himself ended up in jail.)

More movement in our crowd.

The next case was more serious and complicated, the president's spokesman explained. It was the one "that got us thinking about sending journalists to jail."

This story involves a controversial list of 140,000 Czechoslovaks who had been informers or collaborators for the secret police. Zantowsky recognized pressures from the public to have the list published. Journalists were trying desperately to respond to these pressures.

"We thought about it," the press secretary said to our astonishment, "and decided that anyone who publishes this list will go to jail. Not because most of those people were not guilty -- at least of dishonesty. But some of them were victims as much as perpetrators of wrongdoing. And many of them or most of them have families and children, and we just happened to think that the damage caused by the publication of such a list would justify sending someone to jail."

What Zantowsky failed to say is that the government had used the list of informants to pressure some candidates for election not to run. But since the list had not been made public there was no way of knowing whether it had been used appropriately.

By now my editor buddies were muttering under their breath. We were talking to each other about the Pentagon Papers, about prior restraint, about all sorts of incidents where we felt that freedom of the press in America had been weakened. But Zantowsky pressed on with his third story, this one involving himself when he was a Reuter correspondent, "a very interesting case because it has something to do with what happened in this country in the past six months and how it all started."

Zantowsky recalled that the Czechoslovak revolution began on Nov. 17 with a giant student demonstration that was "violently attacked by the riot squads, the anti-terrorist commandos and many secret police." Soon, he received a phone call from Peter Uhl, a Civic Forum activist who now heads the Czechoslovak News Agency. Uhl told him that a student had been killed by police.

"I asked him if he was sure and he said he had an eyewitness and that the eyewitness is completely reliable and that he was 100 percent certain that a student was dead," Zantowsky continued.

Almost at once, Zantowsky filed the story, and just as quickly it was broadcast by Voice of America. The world knows what happened next:

"This incident probably as much as anything else caused huge demonstrations on Nov. 20 -- about 200,000 people," Zantowsky said. "That started the whole thing and got the ball rolling. Now the government of course went absolutely wild and went to great lengths to deny that anything like that took place, but after 40 years nobody believed them and that was the end of the government."

The problem was that the story wasn't true.

"There was no student killed and actually it turned out that there was a secret policeman who lay down on the ground and let himself be covered and pretended that he was killed," Zantowsky continued.

"Why this happened -- why this very intricate provocation or ruse was played -- is still not quite clear. But in any case the story was not true. Peter Uhl went to jail and I didn't sleep at home for two or three days. Peter was released only after the revolution was over.

"Now technically he should still be in jail. He published and I published information which was not true and was very inflammatory and which actually could cause a lot of damage."

But, "it all went well," he concluded, "and I'm here to talk to all of you."

Zantowsky was brave enough to ask for questions and one by one the exemplars of American journalism spoke up in high dudgeon to the questions raised by each of his three stories.

Story one? A man is presumed innocent and cannot be sentenced before a trial.

Story two? A list, used for its own purposes by a government, could not be kept secret in a truly free press. Bets were offered that the list would be published before the summer was out and some of the cynics even wondered whether the list would not be leaked by the Havel administration to some journalist who might benefit from a short stay in the clink. In any case, it is for editors, not governments, to decide whether publication of such a list is unfair.

Story three? That was tougher. How would a journalist fare in the Havel government after publishing false information which provoked a major civic disturbance? The newness of the Czechoslovak democracy makes questions like this hard to answer; there is something about the country's recent past that makes me worry.

But there is also something about this man Havel -- his remarkable informality, his lack of pretension, his friendliness, his poetry, his openness to people and to ideas -- that makes me think journalists would fare well and enjoy any confrontation.

It is impossible for a journalist accustomed to the security consciousness of the American presidency to get used to the sight of Havel, loose in the streets of Prague. Our group saw him three times in four days, including a long night of drinking and conversation. Havel's chief of security that night was hard to recognize: He had a foot-long pony tail, and himself seemed to be guarded by a towering skinhead in sweatshirt and shorts -- all in the confines of the Seven Angels restaurant after midnight. For one 20-minute period, Havel sat at a table locked in conversation over a drink with Jiri Dienstbier, the foreign minister of Czechoslovakia. "It's a cabinet meeting," we were told by a smiling adviser.

At such times, it is hard to imagine this man suing the bastard who wrote that the new administration drank more than the old. It is hard to imagine him throwing journalists into jail for publishing any list. And the further I got from Prague, the less serious these threats to freedom seemed to be.

In America, there is a self-correcting process inherent in our First Amendment. Freedom of the press includes the freedom to be wrong, even to be irresponsible. Government intervention (sue the bastard) and government threats (send them to jail) are rarely if ever appropriate. No government discipline can be more effective in repairing the damage of a story that is just plain wrong than the public knowledge that the story was wrong. (The Janet Cooke case comes too easily to my mind.)

The new Czechoslovak government, though, seemed to wonder if it had enough time -- if it had the luxury of waiting for this self-corrective process to kick in.

Benjamin Bradlee is executive editor of The Washington Post.