When Steve Jobs took the stage at the recent Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco to make his keynote speech, suspense was thick in the cavernous hall. But it wasn't the standard "What will he announce?" brand of suspense that has marked Apple Computer's recent events of this kind.

What made it different was that the previous week, Apple had aimed its lawyers against one of the most popular Web sites that publish information and speculation about Apple, its products and its plans. The company's lawsuit had all but confirmed the site's rumours -- and the audience was essentially waiting to hear what it already knew.

Apple, one of the most famously secretive companies in the technology business, frames this case and several like it as little more than attempts to protect massively valuable trade secrets. The value strikes me as questionable, and the larger reality is an Apple-aimed dagger at one of the foundations of free speech: a vibrant press.

IT may think it has no horse in this race. I think IT should -- ahem -- think different. A culture of secrecy, enshrined in law, would make it even harder for companies to know what's going on, in a time when transparency should be ascendant.

In the case at hand, the target is Think Secret (www.thinksecret.com). The site, operated by a Harvard freshman named Nicholas Ciarelli (who goes by the site pen name of Nick dePlume), had apparently gotten information that was leaked by someone, perhaps inside Apple, about the consumer products Apple would be announcing.

Apple has said in statements that Think Secret induced people to violate non-disclosure agreements and that this somehow gives Apple a cause for legal action. That's debatable, but I'm fairly sure of this: if the party leaking information to Think Secret had sent it to, say, the San Jose Mercury News or The New York Times -- and had those publications run the news, as they no doubt would have -- Apple wouldn't be suing. Both newspapers have deep enough pockets to defend themselves.

This case looks to me -- and to prominent San Francisco lawyer Terry Gross, who is representing Think Secret at no cost -- like a bald attempt to bludgeon a publisher into submission. In media interviews, Gross has said he believes that the case is about intimidation, not about finding the source of the leaks.

The Think Secret case isn't the first time Apple has sent its lawyers after Web sites that posted information about possible upcoming products. Late last year, the company sought subpoenas requiring various sites to reveal their sources, and it got a court order. The Web sites are fighting the subpoenas on the grounds that they are journalists under California and federal law. (Disclosure: I have agreed to file a declaration on their behalf, saying that they are indeed performing a journalistic function. I am not being paid to do so.)

In all of these cases, free speech is the target. While we can sympathise with Apple's desire to keep product announcements quiet until the day it wants to make them, a vibrant press is more important than a company's product secrecy -- despite Apple's pious claim that it's not attacking free speech.

If a company wants to take steps to control its own employees' activities, including firing or suing workers who reveal secrets, that's its right. When it seeks to put a gag on the people who merely receive the information, that's going way too far.