Editors and libel lawyers said yesterday's Supreme Court ruling in favor of The Washington Post will make it easier for news organizations to do investigative reporting and less likely that public figures will sue when they feel a story is wrong.

"For those {news organizations} whose reporters were not as vigorous as they once were, they can do it -- investigative reporting -- with a lot more freedom from worry now," said Richard M. Schmidt, general counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "It's just another roadblock that's been removed from good, vigorous investigative reporting."

"I think this whole inglorious case has taught prominent public people -- both in business and public life -- that when you have complaints about news coverage, you don't use a libel lawsuit as your soapbox," said Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer here.

The Supreme Court yesterday let stand an appeals court decision last March that said The Post did not libel former Mobil president William P. Tavoulareas or his son Peter in a 1979 story that said the elder Tavoulareas "set up" his son in a shipping business that had dealings with Mobil.

"For a whole lot of political people who wanted to bash the media, they have seen Tavoulareas as a test case," said Henry R. Kaufman, general counsel for the Libel Defense Resource Center.

"This is one of the most disastrous defeats for a plaintiff in a decade," said Kaufman. "Tav had the worst of all possible results. The {appeals court} seemed to rule that what The Washington Post said was true. That is the worst thing that can happen to a plaintiff."

Kaufman said that anti-news-media forces had hoped that the Tavoulareas case would give the Supreme Court a chance to change the way the libel system works.

"The case was seen as a whole basketful of 'reform efforts' that libel plaintiffs wanted to get, and none of that happened," Kaufman said. He said those reforms included making it easier for public figures to file libel suits and making it harder for appeals courts to overturn jury verdicts, as has happened frequently in libel cases.

Libel attorneys said that when people with complaints against the news media assess the record of this and other famous libel suits in recent years, they will see that few plaintiffs have collected money and that the public relations aspects of court actions are financially and psychologically costly.

After more than four months in a grueling courtroom battle, retired U.S. Army general William C. Westmoreland dropped his case against CBS News shortly before it went to a jury in 1985. At about the same time, former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon received an apology from Time magazine for its reporting about him, and the jury chastised the magazine for not checking its facts. But Time won the case under libel law.

Former senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) dropped his libel suit against the Sacramento Bee this year after the Bee issued a statement saying pretrial testimony had failed to show illegal skimming at a casino Laxalt owned. The Bee said it still was not backing away from anything that was said in the news story.

Two major pending libel cases are being watched by journalists and libel lawyers. NBC is appealing a verdict of $22.8 million awarded by a Las Vegas jury to singer Wayne Newton, following newscasts that linked him to organized crime figures. It is a case some libel lawyers say they believe NBC can win at an appellate level.

However, a Chicago case involving local CBS commentator Walter Jacobson may show that even though the law sides with the news organization, it does not mean the news media are libel-proof, according to some libel experts.

In March 1982, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. filed suit against Walter Jacobson and CBS Inc. because of a 1981 commentary that blamed Viceroy cigarettes for trying to appeal to young people. A jury awarded the tobacco company $4 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The judge scaled the award back to $2 million. But the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago this summer upped the levy to $3 million for CBS and $50,000 for Jacobson.

Brown & Williamson contended that Jacobson should have had access to information that they had rejected a proposed advertising campaign that would have been directed at young people.

"This case probably establishes the rather obvious point that American libel law is not supposed to be that the press wins in every case," said Sanford.

At news organizations around the country, editors said that The Post's win would make investigative reporting easier. But most said it would not change their agenda simply because it has become less likely to be sued.

James Polk, an investigative reporter with NBC News and former president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said his view is that good investigative reporting "depends on a good reporter and a good manager to push it."

"There are cities where it is not as strong as it should be because management had cold feet for a while," Polk said. "But they probably would have had cold feet anyway."

Gene Roberts, executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which has several libel suits pending against it, said he is "delighted with the decision, of course, and think it is part of a recent set of rulings that have somewhat eased the libel situation."

But Roberts said that his paper's problem is that the key libel case, the 1964 Supreme Court decision in Times v. Sullivan, not only gave news organizations protection but also in effect allowed public officials to sue for libel and slander.

"It is a mistake in dealing with government officials, who are for the most part immune from libel suits or defamation in the exercise of their job, if they can turn around and sue while simultaneously being protected from suit themselves," Roberts said.