When, if ever, should individual rights take a back seat to community needs?

Take the case of a woman who was raped by an assailant she fears has AIDS. Although it usually it can be determined within six months whether she has been infected, in rare cases, evidence of the infection might take years to show up.

Meanwhile she says she cannot marry and bear childen for fear she will pass the infection on to them. She wants her attacker tested to see whether he is free of AIDS.

But advocates of personal rights, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that nobody should be tested for AIDS against his or her will, even in a situation where the victim fears she has been infected by her convicted rapist.

These advocates of personal rights want to block involuntary testing because of massive job and other discrimination against persons with AIDS. They say the woman's best course of action, even on solely medical grounds, is to be tested herself as quickly and as often as necessary.

To George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, protecting the attacker from AIDS testing -- a case that actually happened in New York -- seems a good example of personal rights run amok.

To explore the fuzzy ethical border between personal rights and community needs, Etzioni and a number of others who identify their philosophical viewpoint as "communitarian" recently founded a quarterly journal called "The Responsive Community."

Communitarianism is not an organized movement but a catchword for a line of thought that Etzioni said seeks a middle ground between extreme libertarians who make personal rights an absolute and authoritarians who, he said, have sometimes talked of suspending constitutional rights to fight AIDS and drugs.

Etzioni said his aim isn't to curb civil liberties, but to refine the balance between personal rights and things the community needs to do to protect itself.

He cited the following examples of what he called extreme libertarian claims:

In Inkster, Mich., there was an open-air drug market the local sheriff could not control in a primarily black neighborhood.

"So he came up with the idea of creating a checkpoint for cars, only asking for the driver's license and proof of ownership and insurance," Etzioni said. The drivers were neither searched nor arrested, he said, only asked to show the documents. Nevertheless, "Drug dealers hate it. They have to show their identity."

Civil libertarians challenged the checkpoint on grounds that under the Fourth Amendment, there should be no search and seizure of any person without probable cause to suspect a violation of the law.

To Etzioni, such a checkpoint is acceptable: "A danger to society exists; there is no good alternative method to minimize it; it's effective and it's minimally intrusive," four tests that he said must be met when deciding whether to impinge on an accepted right.

"At the same time, I would object to police opening the car trunks or coming into homes" and actually conducting search-and-seizure operations without probable cause.

In the District of Columbia, "police go to court and say we've been observing a house, we think it's a crack house; they show probable cause and the judge issues a warrant," Etzioni said.

But the clerk, in an error, "writes 'X house on Connecticut Ave.' instead of 'X on Massachusetts.' The police went to the correct house but the defense argued that there was a raid without a warrant because the warrant was for a different house. The case was thrown out.

"My position is that where there is a mistake which is genuinely technical the court should reprimand the clerk but let the case stand," he said.

In some cases, civil libertarians have objected to highway sobriety checkpoints, generalized periodic drug and alcohol tests of transportation personnel, and airport screenings for bombs, Etzioni said.

Generally, he contended, such objections are without merit. "Our position is that as a condition of work in life-endangering jobs, you must consent to drug and alcohol testing randomly before and routinely after any accident," he said.

Moreover, he said, "I'm all for highway sobriety checkpoints" provided advance warning is given to the public, it doesn't take more than a minute or so to conduct the check, it doesn't create massive traffic jams, and police don't use them for general searches of everyone's car and person.

He cited several examples of how he thinks individual rights should be balanced against community needs.

"While people with AIDS must be protected from invasions of their privacy and from job and housing discrimination, the community must be protected in its efforts to curb the spread of the disease to others," Etzioni said.

"While drug dealers' civil rights must be observed, the community must be provided with constitutional tools that will prevent dealers from dominating streets, parks, indeed whole neighborhoods."

And sobriety checkpoints and airport bomb-screening, far from being "unreasonable," instead "are essential to maintaining the right to free travel, free from the fear of terrorism {and} drunken drivers."

Phil Gutis, national spokesman for the ACLU, which is a regular target of Etzioni, said, "From what we've heard, it seems that Dr. Etzioni is grossly oversimplifying many of our positions. We are happy with the Bill of Rights the way it is written and welcome the opportunity to debate these issues with anyone who disagrees."