A group of American publishers is in federal court, suing an office in the U.S. Treasury Department for what would seem to be their most basic of rights: The right to edit, publish and market a manuscript or book as they see fit, without government interference.

The government has been threatening to block U.S. publishers from editing and distributing manuscripts from writers in certain countries—those under a U.S. economic embargo, such as Iran and Cuba. In some instances, the feds said, that could be “trading with the enemy.” And that could mean trouble.

The government said even minor editing, such as correcting punctuation or spelling or moving sentences around, could bring charges that could result in fines or prison terms. If publishers wanted to do such editing, the government told them, they’d need to get a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

After a well-justified outcry over that pronouncement—one publishing executive said the government had “gone off the deep end”—the feds appeared to back off. An April 2 letter to a lawyer for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, an international group representing thousands of engineers and scientists, said the organization’s peer review, editing and publishing of scientific journal articles was “not constrained” by the regulations.

An IEEE official lauded the letter and suggested that the ruling “eliminates potentially disturbing U.S. government intrusions on our scholarly publishing process.”

But not so fast.

Another group of publishers says that because the regulations remain in place, they effectively create a “chilling effect” that prevents some books or articles from embargoed countries from being published in America.

They complain in their lawsuit that the government still forbids the marketing and promotion of books by authors who live in restricted countries; that the government forbids certain kinds of editing, such as adding notes, introductions and illustrations to “enhance” works; and that OFAC has “invented a distinction between works that have already been completed and works that are not yet fully created,” effectively banning the latter. A Treasury Department spokeswoman declined to comment about specifics of the case.

All of this will be hashed over in federal court. But the federal government could save some time and money by simply making clear that it has no interest in meddling in the business of book and scientific paper editing and publishing.

The rule should be simple: The free exchange of ideas in books and other papers is not trading with the enemy.

The free flow of ideas and information has always worked to the advantage of the United States. It is integral to all free societies, not to mention the advancement of science and literature worldwide.

Author Salman Rushdie, president of the board of trustees of PEN American Center, has argued eloquently: “At a time when the United States calls for citizens of other countries to follow the example of American democracy, preventing writers in certain countries from reaching the American public sends exactly the wrong message. Writers in Iran, Cuba and Sudan cannot publish freely in their own countries. It is a tragic and dangerous irony that Americans may not freely publish the works of those writers here, either.”

From the early days of this nation, the presumption has always been—and has always proved true—that ideas and information are formidable weapons in the fight against repressive societies.

The government has a legitimate role in enforcing embargo laws. It has taken laudable steps to reassure some publishers. But it has to make unquestionably clear to all that it will not tinker with one of the foundations of America’s freedom.

Copyright © 2004 The Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

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