Because I'm about to say that the right-wing brats at the loathsome Dartmouth Review may be getting a raw deal, I probably should assert my liberal credentials and continue to call the young people in question all sorts of names. I could do that, but what's the point? Even their own supporters think the Review's editors can be a bunch of squirts.

The latest flap began earlier this month when someone changed the Review's credo by substituting a quotation from Adolf Hitler for one by Theodore Roosevelt. So offensive was the quotation -- "By warding off the Jews, I am fighting for the Lord's work" -- that it could hardly be tut-tutted as yet another boys-will-be-boys romp of the (racist, sexist) sort for which the Review has become famous. For once, not even some clever right-wing intellectual could argue that while the kids might have been clumsy, they did have a point. Six million dead say otherwise.

But still, the issue is not whether the quote is defensible, but how it came to be published. The Review's editor, Kevin C. Pritchett, says he has no idea how it happened. Other editors say the same. It's clear someone substituted AH for TR, but it's not clear whether that person or persons is connected with the Review and, if so, whether the dumb act was authorized. In other words, we have a mystery.

And yet on the Dartmouth campus, and even in the office of Dartmouth president James O. Freedman, the almost universal assumption is otherwise. The offensive quotation is seen as just another Review attempt to put a finger into the eye of the liberal Dartmouth community. That the editor and others kept insisting otherwise seemed to make no difference. Liberals reacted like conservatives. On the basis of the Review's record, "bail" was withheld.

True enough, the Dartmouth Review has what TV cops call "a prior" -- a record of articles and editorials that can fairly be called sexist and, maybe, racist. A black professor credited the Review with hounding him off campus -- on account of race, some said, on account of his teaching, the Review maintained. The Review once ran a tasteless piece on black English. Is it any wonder that some of its alumni have gone on to jobs in the Reagan and Bush administrations?

Freedman is understandably vexed by the Review. The reputation of his school is at stake. But something else is at stake as well -- something like due process. I have been in journalism long enough to know the damage one person can do. At The Post, a reporter once fabricated a story, and that incident is almost always mentioned by the paper's critics -- as if it's the paper's policy to print concocted stories.

In a similar way, the Hitler quotation is being used by the Review's critics to suggest that the editors have finally bared their souls. Maybe they have and maybe they haven't, but a little proof is in order before the rope is strung. Freedman is justified in being angry at someone, but more than the reputation of Dartmouth is at stake here. It would be nice if he said something about due process and even about the right of a publication to be as obnoxious as it pleases. You don't like it, don't buy it.

Not too long after he came to Dartmouth, Freedman addressed the faculty and took on the Review. Much of what he said was good and prudent, but one phrase jarred. He said the Review "destroys our mutual sense of community." But that, as the Reviews editors might answer, is precisely what they want to do. If they were to get pretentious about it all, they might even say that a little destruction was their sacred obligation because the community holds false values. This would certainly be the task of, say, a left-wing publication on a right-wing campus.

By themselves, both Dartmouth and the Dartmouth Review are of less than cosmic importance. But across America, the obnoxious has been confused with the illegal and sometimes treated the same. Museums have been taken to court, record store owners indicted, singers arrested. Even on the nation's campuses -- sometimes especially on the nation's campuses -- free speech has been restricted, often in the name of that sense of community Freedman mentioned.

But Dartmouth is as good a place as any to remember that the current community, sensitive to minorities and essentially liberal, is partially the product of journals that, in their own time, were hated for destroying the sense of community.

Nevertheless, what the Dartmouth community needs most from the Review it still has not gotten: a credible explanation and an apology.