The Supreme Court let stand yesterday a ruling that a newspaper can report undocumented charges that three scientists are "paid liars" without being liable for damages for defamation.

The Second U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed a victory to The New York Times and the National Audubon Society when it issued the ruling last May.

Under the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, a newspaper may not be required "to suppress newsworthy statements merely because it has serious dounts concerning their truth," Chief Judge Irvin R. Kaufman wrote.

"Nor must the press take up the cudgels against dubious charges in order to publish them without fear of liability for defamation," Kaufman continued.

"The public interest in being fully informed about controversies that rage around sensitive issues demands that the press be afforded the freedom to report such charges without fear of liability for defamation."

In a friend-of-the-court brief, Accuracy in Media (AIM), a nonprofit organization, said that the ruling permits a newspaper "to launch an irresponsible attack on one side or the other via the devious road of maligning . . . with impunity" those it dislikes.

The appellate court overturned a $61,000 damage award made by federal Judge Charles M. Metzner to the scientists, each of whom is a Ph.D. and a professor: entomologist J. Gordon Edwards of San Jose State College in California, medical physicist and nutritionist Thomas H. Jukes of the University of California at Berkeley, and biologist Robert White-Stevens or Rutgers University in New Jersey.

A key issue in the case was whether Robert S. Arbib Jr., editor of "American Birds," an Audubon Society publication, had identified the scientists as "paid liars" to Times reporter John Develin. Arbib swore he hadn't; Devlin swore he had.

Three years of pre-trial proceedings failed to resolve the dispute. Solely for that reason, Metzner rejected a motion for a summary judgment made by The Times, the society, and Roland C. Clement, a vice president of the society.

The case was rooted in a bitter, long-standing controversy over DDT and certain other pesticides.

Opponents of the chemicals claimed they endangered bird life. Proponents said that without them insect-carried diseases and crop destruction by insect pests would kill millions of human beings. Indeed, plaintiff Edwards once described a ban on exports of DDT, which the Audubon Society supported, as "deliberately genocidal."

The society sponsored an annual Christmas bird count. Despite rising pesticide use over a 30-year period, bird sightings steadily increased. Pesticide advocates cited this as evidence that birds thrive in the pesticide era, even on a sigtings-per-watcher basis.

Such claims angered the society. It accused advocates of distorting the truth by ignoring factors such as the improvements in sighting skills and greater access to observation areas.

In "American Birds" in 1972, editor Aribib wrote that a person who claims to be a scientist and who says bird populations are prospering "is being paid to lie." (He lacked a factual basis for the charge, Judge Kaufman said.)

Reporter Devlin phoned Arabib to ask the names of the "paid liars." Overcoming an initial reluctance to cooperate, Arbih consulted his collegue, Cleminet. Emphasizing that he could not specify any "paid liars," the society executive did supply a list of scientists who, he said, persistently had used the bird-count data.

Arbib testified that Clement told him it would be all right to give Devlin the names with the qualification that the society doesn't "have any knowledge of anyone being paid liars . . ." He also testified that he passed along this caution to Devlin; the reporter denied it.

Devlin sought comment from the three scientists. Each categorically denied the "paid liar" charge and sent Devlin voluminous materials supporting their side of the pesticide controversy.

Judge Kaufman wrote that the First Amendment protects the reporting of serious charges made by "a responsible, prominent organization" such as the society, that there wasn't "a shred of evidence" that Devlin had serious doubts about the truth of the "paid liars" charge, and that his story was "the exemplar of fair and dispassionate reporting of an unfortunate but newsworthy contretemps."

The article ran Aug. 14, 1972. The next day, Clement said in an internal society memo, "Devlin probably asked whom do you consider liars, and Arbib was trapped into listing people I have never called liars, though they may be."

The court took other actions: AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

Six years ago in Chicago, Interlake Steel Corp. hired Furnco Construction Corp. for a highly skilled job, 20 hours a day, seven days a week: replacing the firebrick in a blast furnace.

Following past practice, Furnco brick superintendent Joseph Dacies hired bricklayers from his list of men who had worked with him on other jobs. All of the men on the list were white, although he had worked with black bricklayers since 1958.

After Dacies had hired about 35 whites in a seven-week period during which he turned away black applicants "at the gate," he called other Furnco personnel for the names of black bricklayers and hired four.

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Nine months ago, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Furnco had violated civil rights laws because Davies' list "foreordained" that most jobs would be filled by whites.

Furnco asked the Supreme Court to review the decision. One of its arguments was that black bricklayers accounted for 13.3 per cent of the man-days worked, even though only 5.7 per cent of the bricklayers in "the relevant labor force" - in Cook County and five nearby counties - were black.

Furnco also claimed that the appellate court had made the use of racial employment statistics "a one-way street" in which data can be used to prove but not to disprove discrimination

The Supreme Court agreed to review the decision. RIGHT TO COUNSEL

The court ruled 8 to 0 that James R. Moore, sentenced to prison in 1968 for rape and sodomy, had been entitled to counsel at a preliminary hearing at which a victim identified him after being told she was going to view a suspect, heard his name called as he was led before the bench, and listened to the prosecutor recite incriminating evidence. PAROLE

The court agreed to decide whether due process of law must be accorded by a state when it determines the minimum time a prisoner with an indeterminate sentence must serve before he can be considered for parole.