The letterhead was that of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the letter was signed by Alan E. Sears, executive director of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography. Mailed in February 1986, it was addressed to heads of chains of convenience stores, drug stores, magazine distributors and bookstores throughout the country.

Mr. Sears informed the recipients that during one of the commission's hearings in Los Angeles a witness alleged that "your company is involved in the sale or distribution of pornography." Having powerfully captured the recipient's attention, Sears added that the accused had until March 3 to respond to the charges. Silence would be taken as an indication of "no objection" to his or her being listed in the pornography commission's "final report section on identified distributors."

It turned out that the unidentified Los Angeles witness was the somewhat renowned Rev. Donald Wildmon, executive director of the National Federation of Decency, a self described "Christian organization" based in Tupelo, Miss. An indication of one aspect of Rev. Wildmon's tireless research is his emphasis -- in a column about television sex and violence in his newsletter -- that "of the people who control television, who tell us what we can watch on the networks, 59 percent were raised in Jewish homes."

As included in the Justice Department's warning letter, the Los Angeles testimony of this distinguished expert witness cited by name a host of retailers and distributors of such pornographic, as he put it, publications as Playboy and Penthouse. (Wildmon did not define pornography, presumably because we all know it when we see it.)

Among those named and receiving the fateful letter from the Justice Department were 7-Eleven convenience stores, Rite Aid Drugs, Revco, Peoples Drugs, Thrifty Drugs and Dart Drugs. All have been longtime distributors of Playboy; and all, soon after receiving the letter, barred their doors to Playboy and to other publications on the Rev. Wildmon's list as legitimized by the Justice Department. Other distributors, not wanting to offend the attorney general, have also scoured their racks of these infectious publications.

Playboy, the American Booksellers Association, the Council for Periodical Distributors Associations -- and, in a separate action, Penthouse -- have brought suit against Edwin Meese III et al. More incisively than in their legal briefs, the cause of action has best been stated in a Chicago Tribune editorial: "The Meese commission has decided on its own to accuse a group of businesses of peddling porn and dare them not to stop. It is stunning in its arrogance, and it borders on a kind of official blackmail . . . the judgment about what this country forbids is supposed to be made by the legislature, not some rogue commission bent on scourging society of sin."

But if this rogue commission has not been restrained, is there not a rogue attorney general?

One of the main precedents cited in both briefs in support of getting the attorney general to retrack the blacklist, and so inform everyone to whom the Sears letter was sent, is a case called Hentoff v. Ichord. In October 1970, Richard Ichord, chairman of the then House Internal Security Committee, released a preliminary committee report listing 65 speakers at college campuses during the preceding two years who, according to the committee, were riding the circuit "promoting violence and encouraging the destruction of our form of government."

I was named as one of the dread 65. Indicative of the quality of the committee's research was that I had never belonged to any of the groups the committee said I belonged to. Moreover, as someone much influenced by A. J. Muste's teaching on nonviolence, I had been trying to persuade anti-war students that if they used violence to attain peaceful ends, they would turn into the enemy they so scorned. On a couple of campuses, this message was received with such tidal derision that my speaking for the evening was summarily ended, and for a few moments, I thought I might be too.

Anyway, when I sued Ichord, with the American Civil Liberties Union as my counsel, U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell, for the first time in the nation's history, enjoined the Public Printer from printing, for wide distribution and sale, the Internal Security Committee's blacklist of college speakers. He noted that "It is . . . contrary to our most established traditions for any committee of Congress to disseminate lists designed to suppress speech."

It is just as un-American for a commission appointed by the attorney general of the United States to blacklist those who sell and distribute publications. Indeed, the Meese blacklist is even more illegitimately threatening because it implies that those on the list will be prosecuted for selling pornography -- whatever Rev. Wildmon may decide that to be -- as he and the attorney general keep trying mightily to protect us all from ourselves.