DURING THE Vietnam War, students in an Iowa high school organized a silent protest against government policy signified by wearing black arm bands to class. Administrators attempted to prohibit the demonstration on grounds that it might provoke a disturbance. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled that the disputed activity was a form of free speech and entitled to protection under the Constitution. The case is a high water mark in the area of high school students' free speech rights, because since it was handed down, the court has become increasingly tolerant of school administrators who seek to rein in student behavior. The justices, for example, have approved the penalizing of a high school student speaker who used offensive language at an assembly and have sanctioned faculty and administration control over the content of school newspapers. But the Supreme Court has not yet decided whether these kinds of controls can be imposed on students at the college level. That case may be coming to the court soon.

On Monday the Supreme Court refused to review a ruling by a California appellate court reversing a trial judge who had summarily dismissed a suit challenging alleged censorship at a branch of the San Diego Community College. The case will now be tried, and no matter which side wins there will be great interest in appealing all the way to the Supreme Court. At issue is a decision by college administrators to countermand a faculty decision to produce a play called "Split Second" as part of a drama course. The play involves the shooting of a white suspect by a black police officer and the officer's fabrication of evidence that he acted in self-defense. College officials acted after receiving a number of phone calls from churches and others alleging that the production of the play would exacerbate community tensions already stirred by a trial involving the murder of white policemen by a black suspect.

College students are not children, and the whole set of Supreme Court cases involving elementary and high school pupils is irrelevant. Adults need no protection from controversial ideas, no overseers to filter out material that may rock the boat or even offend some people. In the San Diego case, the trial judge found that it was perfectly all right for the college -- a state institution -- to take steps to "prevent controversy" and agreed with administrators that the "play was not an appropriate one to be placed in the public purview." These determinations might be understandable if the students in question were third-graders or even high school sophomores, but they are adults. The trial and appeal of this case should clarify this distinction and set a firm precedent against censorship on college campuses.