MOSCOW, JUNE 12 -- The Soviet legislature today approved a new law that eliminates state censorship, guarantees press freedoms and permits any public organization, political party or individual to start a publication.

The law also specifies that public officials who withhold information from journalists or hamper their work could face criminal charges. And -- in a clause that will bring no cheer to editors anywhere -- it stipulates that journalists may decline to write stories that go against their beliefs and refuse to allow versions of their work that has been "distorted during the editing process."

For generations, the ruling Communists kept a tight grip on all newspapers and magazines, and state censors sat in the offices of all publications and had higher authority than top editors. Those censors will be eliminated under the new law.

Although the Soviet news agency Tass celebrated passage of the law as a victory for human rights and democratic freedoms, many Soviet journalists remain skeptical. On the floor of the legislature, or Supreme Soviet, Sergei Zalygin, editor in chief of the influential literary monthly Novy Mir, said that the measure was unnecessary and that what the country really needs is a constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and the press like that enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Yuri Sigov, the legislative correspondent for Argumenty i Fakty, a weekly with a circulation of nearly 30 million, complained that the law had been "castrated" in the drafting process and that it failed to help independent publishers overcome the party and state "monopoly on the paper industry."

In the last few years, as censorship restrictions have gradually eased in the Soviet Union, thousands of independent newspapers and magazines have sprung up. Hawkers sell these, usually at relatively high prices, in subway stations and on street corners. But in order to keep pace with growing reader demand, the independent publishers say, they must have ready access to printing materials.

Lev Timofeyev, a former political prisoner who now edits the independent journal Referendum, commented: "We'll have to wait three or four months to find out what this law really means in practice. Does it mean that the independent papers and journals will have to register with the authorities and come under their control in order to get paper and have access to typographical machines? Without a real market for paper, without independent access, the law will have less meaning than it should."

In another area of individual freedom, the new leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexi II, told reporters that he planned to urge the government to allow religious education in schools, which would be a radical move for a state founded on atheism. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who held a short meeting with the patriarch today, has already permitted the return of private religious instruction in the country on the widest scale since the Bolshevik Revolution.