DID YOU KNOW that Shafik Al Hout, director of the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Beirut, was in town? No, you didn't, unless you were among the handful of people who, under the terms of the visa granted him by the State Department, were forced to turn up the collars of their coats, sneak into privately arranged meetings and promise not to divulge anything they might hear inside. The State Department, you see, granted him entry only on condition that Mr. Al Hout address no public gatherings and avoid all publicity. Otherwise, he risks being thrown out and denied entry the next time.

It's shameful. It's shameful that Mr. Al Hout is not allowed to say what he has to say on a burning public issue. It's even more shameful that his listeners, American citizens, must enter into a conspiracy of silence to gain the privilege of talking with him. Take our word for it: You feel shabby, a bit dirty, for having to accept a distinct infringement of your normal liberties.

It happens, of course, because the PLO is a political hot potato. One part of the U.S. government cowers under the pressure of groups determined to keep out of the mideast peace process the very organization that another part of the U.S. government seeks to draw into the process. The American Jewish Congress, for instance, criticizes the State Department for letting Mr. Al Hout in at all, claiming that the department's action will "burden" the peace process and "undermine" confidence in American impartiality. In fact, the action burdens the democratic process and undermines confidence in American self-respect. The question of official dealings with the PLO is political and not to the point here. The question of admitting foreigners to meet openly with private citizens and to offer their views to the American public is not, strictly speaking, political at all. It is, or at least it ought to be, a matter of fundamental American values and rights.