The First Ammendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, is a straightforward statement and one that Waldenbooks wholeheartedly endorses.

It's a statement I've had occasion to consider from a variety of perspectives in recent days.The position of Waldenbooks on the explosive situation regarding Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" is equally straightforward: Waldenbooks is not Congress. Whereas we have throughout our corporate history decried and fought censorship wherever we have found it, it is simply not the legitimate function of a book retailer to solve the problems of international terrorism.

On Feb. 16, I determined that, because of the number and seriousness of the threats being made against our store personnel and customers, we owed our first allegiance to the safety of our employees and patrons.

These were real threats made against the lives of real people. We have only to contemplate the downing of the Pan Am flight to be reminded that such threats must be taken seriously.

I therefore asked our stores to remove the remaining inventory of our total of 5,000 copies, asking them to hold them in the back of the stores.

The decision was made in order to reduce the tension produced by prominent display of the book, while we continued to sell copies to any customer who asked.

Our policy has long been that if merchandise offends a significant number of customers, it has remained available for sale but has not been prominently featured.

To have endangered civilian lives would have been the act of an irresponsible person--I believed that when I made the decision; I believe it now.

When I wonder at the wisdom of the decision, or retroactively consider alternatives, I keep uppermost in my mind the vision of a 22-year-old store manager who receives a threat in one of our stores in a mall somewhere.

Our store personnel join us because they love books and want to work surrounded by books--discussing them, selling them, reading them.

These are neither high-paying nor glamorous jobs. Our people are not Foreign Service officers, members of the diplomatic corps or soldiers sworn to protect the rights of citizens. They are civilians--they are pawns in an explosive game in which they never sought to play.

Since making my decision, I have been bombarded by attacks by publishers, authors, the media and customers. Many are properly concerned at this basic abridgment of the right to buy a book.

To them, I say this: We agree. This is serious. This is wrong. And we want to find a solution.

To them, I also say that the problems of international terrorism are not best solved by a bookstore chain.

If I chose the suggested course of keeping the books on display, I would put at risk thousands of lives that I have no right to risk--lives of customers, employees. Where is the justice in such action?