Edwin Meese III, President Reagan's counselor, is an amiable man, who carries his responsibilities as the chief White House policy adviser without a load of pomposity. Busy as he is, he returns a lot of phone calls and even goes out to make a speech now and then.

A speech Ed Meese made two weeks ago to the California Peace Officers Association in Sacramento is still rattling around town -- as it ought to. It told us something important about the president's right-hand man, something we will forget at our peril. It told us that the lawyer now occupying that vital position is insensitive or hostile to civil liberties, when they appear -- to him -- to conflict with putting bad guys in jail.

As described by Carl Ingram of the Los Angeles Times, who was there, the former Alameda County prosecutor was discussing law enforcement problems when the public address system squawked static. He ad-libbed, "I didn't know the ACLA [American Civil Liberties Union] was that powerful."

"That reminds me," he continued, "of one other thing that had developed in the last 20 years. That is, there has actually been the emergence, not only in California but throughout the nation, of what might be described as a criminals' lobby."

Meese said the "opponents of effective criminal justice legislation" were active in the 1960s, but it was only in the 1970s that a coalition of groups "came out and actually bargained on behalf of the criminals."

And then, as Reagan himself often does, Meese reached into his memory and extracted an impressively obscure bit of evidence. In this case, it was a footnote to a 1978 article in the Pacific Law Journal published by the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, which he said "lists some nine or 10 different organizations" -- among them the ACLU -- "that have now formed a consistent body of lobbying which is regularly opposed to law enforcement."

As Reagan sometimes does, Meese got the citation slightly wrong. The article was a historical analysis of the debate over the advantages of indeterminate sentences versus fixed terms. One footnote simply said that the ACLU had testified at a state senate hearing on the issue, along with groups representing prisoners, judges and correctional officials. A second footnote described the ACLU and the others as part of "what was loosely referred to as the liberal coalition" on the issue.

Meese's factual error was not important in itself. But, like Reagan's slips, it was significant for the stereotype it revealed. "As with Reagan's story about the "welfare queen" of Chicago, the language told you everything. In Meese's mind, "what was loosely referred to as the liberal coalition" in the footnote became "a criminals' lobby."

In the administration, where no one likes to dispute Meese, three days of repeated questioning of the acting White House press spokesman produced only the information that Meese was "speaking for himself" and the president "does not feel a need to express an opinion."

When Attorney General William French Smith was asked about it at his press conference, he said he often disagreed with the ACLU, "but I would not characterize it myself as a part of a criminals' lobby."

Despite all this dancing around the subject by his colleagues, Meese himself was not ducking at all when I called him after the Smith press conference. "I was talking about the increase in crime, and I said one of the problems was that a group of organizations had lobbied against law enforcement legislation, or, in essence, had turned into a lobby for criminals. . . . When they lobby on behalf of criminals, I think it's appropriate to use that term," Meese said.

The ACLU was upset. Their Washington lobbyist John Shattuck said he was "appalled." But I think it is well that we know where Ed Meese stands. Ever since the ACLU was founded in 1920 "to defend the Bill of Rights, even when we may disagree with the groups that are exercising those rights," as the charter said, it has risked offending powerful people. From the teaching of evolution in Tennessee, to the publication of "Ulysses," to juveniles' right to trail counsel, to the Nazi march in Skokie, the ACLU has defended some awfully unpopular causes.

No one at ACLU remembers a presidential assistant previously categorizing the group as part of the "criminals' lobby," but Meese is uncommonly outspoken. Earlier he let it be known that he had encouraged the president to pardon the two FBI officials convicted by a jury of authorizing illegal break-ins during the Nixon administration's drive against radical opponents of the Vietnam War.

Meese's view is perfectly consistent. Two of those warrantless FBI searches were conducted in the apartment of a woman law student who was helping in the court defense of accused Weather Ungerground members. If you wanted to adopt Meese's language, you might say she too was part of "a criminals' lobby."

Meese's friends say his dream in life is to become attorney general. We have been put on notice that in his case, we should amend the famous aphorism of Nixon's attorney general, John N. Mitchell. With Meese, it should read: "Watch what we do -- and what we say."