The State Department has put reporters on the diplomatic beat in the category of patrons of a fancy house who are allowed into the parlor to chat with the piano player but are supposed to keep their distance from those practicing their profession in the rooms upstairs.

That is the effect of tough new security rules being imposed on reporters despite their protests that the new system will restrict their access to department officials and make covering news there harder.

Among other things, the rules will end the practice of permitting properly accredited correspondents in all but a few high-security areas of the vast State Department building. Correspondents will be restricted to the second-floor press room and the press spokesman's office unless they have an appointment with someone in the higher reaches.

Department spokesman John Hughes insists that the action only formalizes on paper what long had been an unwritten rule. That assertion is disputed by reporters with long experience on the beat and by several of Hughes' predecessors.

They acknowledge that previous attempts by zealous security officers to keep the press penned up on the second floor had been sidetracked by protests that it would chill the relatively free interplay between correspondents and diplomats.

To the press, the new rules seem to be part of an ominous trend toward greater secrecy within the department by chipping away reporters' privileges in piecemeal fashion or tying new red tape to the process of obtaining press credentials.

Reporters seeking the department's badge of entry will have to be fingerprinted. That is so even though almost everyone on the beat has a White House press card, which means that they have been fingerprinted by the Secret Service and that their prints are in the data banks available to all federal security offices, including State's.

Department security and press officials see the matter differently, insisting that the new rules are necessary to safeguard government secrets from unauthorized people.

However, in meetings with reporters, the officials could not cite an instance where accredited correspondents from legitimate news organizations have been involved in breaches of security regulations.

In private, some sympathetic department officials said they believed that the rules were less an attempt to staunch the flow of information than a case of "empire building" by the security office and a tendency of security officers to discharge their duties with what one official described as "a shotgun rather than a scalpel."

The negotiations did show that the bureaucrats aren't completely inflexible. After some hard bargaining, they allowed as how it would be all right for reporters to go to the third-floor press offices of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Agency for International Development. They also threw in access to the third-floor cafeteria.

But the icing on the cake was Hughes' announcement that the department wants to make it easier for reporters to pace around the confining spaces of the press room. Within the next month or two, he said, new carpeting will be installed.