After years of playing tough with City Hall demonstrators, limiting press access to public records, and riling the ACLU with anti-porn zoning, Rudy Giuliani is about to show civil libertarians his warm, cuddly side. This week, as he gears up for a Senate campaign that could bring his term to an early end, the mayor is considering issuing an executive order that could finally put an end to police interference with the press. The order would acknowledge that for several years police have blocked photographers’ lenses, placed reporters behind remote barricades, and seized press cards at crime scenes and other news locations. With City Hall negotiating the language of an order drafted by First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, representing a coalition of news organizations, the mayor and the media appear to be on the verge of glasnost.

Unless, that is, you talk with certain members of that very coalition. The Daily News originally hired Abrams and formed the coalition last year to sue the pants off the mayor, not chat with him – until a private April 22 meeting attended by Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, Giuliani, and Howard Safir led to an unexpected smoking of the peace pipe. Now, others in the coalition, which includes the Times, Newsday, the Associated Press, and the New York Press Club, are steamed they didn’t have their day in court. “I don’t like the word negotiation,” barks Press Club president and NBC eminence Gabe Pressman. “You don’t negotiate the First Amendment.”

Zuckerman, for his part, can’t understand the outcry. “There seems to be some brouhaha, which I must say astonishes me,” he says. “We – the Daily News – have always had a policy of trying to accomplish our goals with negotiation first.” How did Giuliani react when Zuckerman told him police were hampering the press? “I think he was not fully aware of what in fact had been taking place,” Zuckerman says, “so I went through the issues and I gave him some specifics.”

Other coalition members have trouble with that story. “Some of the people at the corporation counsel’s office said, ‘Gee, we didn’t know this was going on.’ That is total bullshit,” says one source. “I think Rudy is a duplicitous son of a bitch, and whatever he agrees to when he’s running for office, who knows if he’ll keep it?”

Is Giuliani paying lip service to Zuckerman to boost his Senate bid? Or, worse yet, did Zuckerman hold the meeting so as not to risk offending a mayor he relies on in his real-estate dealings? “The unknowable question is, what would happen if we sued first and negotiated later?” says another source close to the talks. “Zuckerman essentially took that issue off the table.”

Even Abrams admits to having been out of the loop about the meeting. But he calls it “probably very useful, putting aside etiquette. We’ll either reach a settlement, or if we don’t after a sincere effort, that’s useful for us, too.”

Coalition or no coalition, Abrams seems to be enjoying the mayor’s fresh outlook on the First Amendment. He remembers discussing a case with Giuliani back in the seventies, when the future mayor’s law clients included the Daily News. “I was arguing for greater protections for journalists in libel suits,” Abrams says. “He was unpersuaded.”