NEW YORK TIMES
February 28, 2004
Treasury Department Is Warning Pulishers of the Perils of Criminal Editing of the Enemy
By ADAM LIPTAK
Writers often grumble about the criminal things editors do to their prose.
The federal government has recently weighed in on the same issue -
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
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
"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
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."
Copyright 2004, The New York Times Company
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