February 28, 2004
Treasury Department Is Warning Publishers of the Perils of Criminal Editing of the Enemy
riters often grumble about the criminal things editors do to their prose. The federal government has recently weighed in on the same issue literally.
It has warned publishers they may face grave legal consequences for editing manuscripts from Iran and other disfavored nations, on the ground that such tinkering amounts to trading with the enemy.
Anyone who publishes material from a country under a trade embargo is forbidden to reorder paragraphs or sentences, correct syntax or grammar, or replace "inappropriate words," according to several advisory letters from the Treasury Department in recent months.
Adding illustrations is prohibited, too. To the baffled dismay of publishers, editors and translators who have been briefed about the policy, only publication of "camera-ready copies of manuscripts" is allowed.
The Treasury letters concerned Iran. But the logic, experts said, would seem to extend to Cuba, Libya, North Korea and other nations with which most trade is banned without a government license.
Laws and regulations prohibiting trade with various nations have been enforced for decades, generally applied to items like oil, wheat, nuclear reactors and, sometimes, tourism. Applying them to grammar, spelling and punctuation is an infuriating interpretation, several people in the publishing industry said.
"It is against the principles of scholarship and freedom of expression, as well as the interests of science, to require publishers to get U.S. government permission to publish the works of scholars and researchers who happen to live in countries with oppressive regimes," said Eric A. Swanson, a senior vice president at John Wiley & Sons, which publishes scientific, technical and medical books and journals.
Nahid Mozaffari, a scholar and editor specializing in literature from Iran, called the implications staggering. "A story, a poem, an article on history, archaeology, linguistics, engineering, physics, mathematics, or any other area of knowledge cannot be translated, and even if submitted in English, cannot be edited in the U.S.," she said.
"This means that the publication of the PEN Anthology of Contemporary Persian Literature that I have been editing for the last three years," she said, "would constitute aiding and abetting the enemy."
Allan Adler, a lawyer with the Association of American Publishers, said the trade group was unaware of any prosecutions for criminal editing. But he said the mere fact of the rules had scared some publishers into rejecting works from Iran.
Lee Tien, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, questioned the logic of making editors a target of broad regulations that require a government license.
"There is no obvious reason why a license is required to edit where no license is required to publish," he said. "They can print anything as is. But they can't correct typos?"
In theory almost certainly only in theory correcting typographical errors and performing other routine editing could subject publishers to fines of $500,000 and 10 years in jail.
"Such activity," according to a September letter from the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, "would constitute the provision of prohibited services to Iran."
Tara Bradshaw, a Treasury Department spokeswoman, confirmed the restrictions on manuscripts from Iran in a statement. Banned activities include, she wrote, "collaboration on and editing of the manuscripts, the selection of reviewers, and facilitation of a review resulting in substantive enhancements or alterations to the manuscripts."
She did not respond to a request seeking an explanation of the department's reasoning.
Congress has tried to exempt "information or informational materials" from the nation's trade embargoes. Since 1988, it has prohibited the executive branch from interfering "directly or indirectly" with such trade. That exception is known as the Berman Amendment, after its sponsor, Representative Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat.
Critics said the Treasury Department had long interpreted the amendment narrowly and grudgingly. Even so, Mr. Berman said, the recent letters were "a very bizarre interpretation."
"It is directly contrary to the amendment and to the intent of the amendment," he said. "I also don't understand why it's not in our interest to get information into Iran."
Kenneth R. Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, said the government had grown insistent on the editing ban. "Since 9/11 and since the Bush administration took office," he said, "the Treasury Department has been ramping up enforcement."
Publishers may still seek licenses from the government that would allow editing, but many First Amendment specialists said that was an unacceptable alternative.
"That's censorship," said Leon Friedman, a Hofstra law professor who sometimes represents PEN. "That's a prior restraint."
Esther Allen, chairwoman of the PEN American Center's translation committee, said the rules would also appear to ban translations. "During the cold war, the idea was to let voices from behind the Iron Curtain be heard," she said. "Now that's called trading with the enemy?"
In an internal legal analysis last month, the publishers' association found that the regulations "constitute a serious threat to the U.S. publishing community in general and to scholarly and scientific publishers in particular." Mr. Adler, the association's lawyer, said it was trying to persuade officials to alter the regulations and might file a legal challenge.
These days, journals published by the engineering institute reject manuscripts from Iran that need extensive editing and run a disclaimer with those they accept, said Michael R. Lightner, the institute vice president responsible for publications. "It tells readers," he said, "that the article did not get the final polish we would like."