Curb the thought police

September 30, 2004

THE TREASURY Department's bone-headed decision not to allow U.S. publishers to edit the works of writers from trade-sanctioned countries has ended up in court. One trusts the Constitution, again, will prevail.

After a year of confusion, protest and clarifications that themselves could have used some editing, a group of U.S. publishers is suing Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, saying its rule that publishers must obtain government license to edit copy violates the First Amendment as well as laws that exempt "information and information materials" from being included in trade sanctions (which affect Cuba, Iran and Sudan).

The chill started last fall, when the foreign assets department told the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers that it could not translate, fix spelling or add commas in Iranian-produced research reports. This spring, the department eased up on the IEEE, and in July it gave freer rein to the American Society of Newspaper Editors to alter commentary pieces from writers living in embargoed countries. Still, it's not clear what constitutes "substantive alterations," though the punishment for crossing the line is clear - up to $1 million in fines and 10 years in jail.

Now the ice has set in, and even the biggest of academic publishers are treading lightly - or self-censoring. Cornell University Press postponed reprinting its Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba because it needed minor editing. Editors at Johns Hopkins University Press' Journal of Democracy asked permission before printing the translated correspondence - about democracy - between playwright and former president of Czechoslovakia Vaclav Havel and Oswaldo PayM-a, a leading pro-democracy activist in Cuba. They say they can consider works by Chinese dissidents, but need permission to consider one by an Iranian dissident, or to commission an essay by a Sudanese author.

As JHU's journal points out, government control of the media is one of the biggest obstacles to democracy in other nations. How effectively can the United States coax others to try democracy if it is muzzling its expression at home?

Offering writers from repressive countries a voice in this one can only help weaken those regimes. Banning them backhandedly, as Treasury seems to have done, is not just pound-foolish but dangerous. What Americans don't know can hurt them.

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