The issue confronting a federal jury in Alexandria, says former attorney general Ramsey Clark, is one of free speech and a free press.

Do members of a "poor, deprived exile community" have the right to speak in America about issues in their homelands that trouble them? asks Clark, who is in the Northern Virginia court to defend a small Chinese language newspaper.

Tzu-Min Kao, a native Taiwanese who heads the physical therapy department at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Alexandria, sees the issue quite differently. He says he has feared for his safety and that of his children since a small Chinese language newspaper published in New York called him "a Taiwanese animal with four legs."

He has filed a $4.5 million libel suit against the publication, the Taiwan Tribune, charging that the newspaper libeled him by portraying him unfavorably because of his political activities on behalf of the Taiwanese government.

The lawsuit, which is expected to go to a jury today, highlights the struggle between factions in the Taiwanese-speaking communities of this country -- divided between those who support and those who criticize their homeland's government.

The newspaper, a twice-weekly publication put out by dissidents of the Taiwanese government, claims that the suit is "an illegal and unconstitutional effort by Kao and/or the present ruling government of Taiwan to put out of business or otherwise silence the defendant newspaper because it is a vocal and influential critic of that government . . . . "

"People know my newspaper would be extended into bankruptcy by this lawsuit," Tribune Publisher and Editor Fu-Chen Lo has testified. He said his publication, with a circulation of only 2,300, operates on a shoe-string budget.

Among the 50-plus Chinese-language publications published in the United States, the Tribune is believed to be the only one put out by Taiwanese who oppose their government. Published by the Taiwan New Generation Publishing Corp., it is affiliated with the World United Formosans for Independence, a loose coalition of groups seeking an end to Taiwan's 35-year-old martial law.

[U.S. officials in the past have criticized the activities in this country of Taiwanese agents seeking to harass or silence dissidents of the island country's government. Last week a Taiwan court found two men guilty of the 1984 murder of Chinese-American journalist Henry Liu in San Francisco. The men said in court they carried out the murder on the orders of Taiwan's former military intelligence chief, who is now on trial for his alleged part in the murder.]

Lawyers defending the newspaper have tried to emphasize Kao's close ties with the Taiwanese government while lawyers for the physician have sought to show that the newspaper supports a group carrying out terrorist activities against the Taiwan government.

The newspaper introduced documents and witnesses who identified Kao as an official of the Taiwanese Benevolent Association and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council, both groups that seek to maintain support for the Taiwan government among the Taiwanese in Diaspora. Beyond that, they were unable to show that Kao's suit was financed or supported by the Taiwanese government.

Highly detailed linguistic testimony about the Chinese words in the Tribune's article has alternately dulled the senses of the jury and provided amusing sidelights.

"Of course, all Taiwanese are two-legged," said David Tsai, a language expert with the Library of Congress who was put on the stand by the newspaper.

"The four-legged are on the other side," he said, comparing the "very mildly" insulting term to the English word "quisling."

"There is a long history of the four-legged term . . . ," he said.

What is apparent is the fear on both sides. Kao declined to be photographed. One witness for the newspaper, testified behind a large blackboard so no one in the audience could see his face.