This week, a group of American publishers filed suit against the Treasury secretary and the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department concerning an issue percolating since last September: the editing of books and manuscripts from countries, like Iran and Sudan, that are the targets of sanctions. Last year, the office issued a ruling that allowed the publication of finished works from those countries but made it illegal for Americans to edit them or consult with an author about editorial changes. The ostensible goal was to deny economic benefits to hostile foreign countries. The actual result was to impair the principle of freedom of information, a cornerstone of American democracy.

Last spring, the Treasury Department promised to clarify the ruling in hopes of making the uproar go away. The clarification did not really help. By law, information and informational materials are exempt from regulation under economic sanctions. The department’s clarification allowed certain editorial activities, like the normal peer review of scholarly articles. But it upheld the department’s right to decide which kinds of editorial services were permitted and which were not.

The groups that are suing the department, including the Association of American University Presses and the PEN American Center, argue that the ruling violates the law.

It also violates common sense. No matter how the Treasury Department’s ruling is framed, denying editorial cooperation of this kind deprives us as much as it does the sanctioned countries. It keeps new work from being published in this country, and it creates the legitimate impression that our freedoms are no longer as free as they once were.

The United States should be doing everything it can to encourage freedom of information. Most of the countries under trade sanctions enjoy extremely limited freedoms. One of the most effective things America can do when it comes to spreading our principles is to offer the exercise of real intellectual freedom to authors from sanctioned countries.

Copyright © 2004 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

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