A university is squeamish about publishing a birders’ guide to Cuba. Another nixed an encyclopedia of Cuban music. A geology journal spiked a paper by Iranian scientists on methods for predicting earthquakes.

The reason: Fear of whopping fines and jail time for “trading with the enemy.”

Trade sanctions against Cuba, Iran and other embargoed nations are curbing free speech, according to U.S. publishers and authors who plan to sue the government today.

The lawsuit stems from a dispute between the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, and a technical society based in Piscataway, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE.

That dispute has left some publishers worried they must seek a license to publish works from embargoed countries—or risk $1 million fines and criminal prosecution, say the plaintiffs, who include author Salman Rushdie.

“It’s un-American to ask for permission in advance to publish articles or books,” said Edward Davis, the coalition’s lead attorney.

Davis, a Morristown native, said he will challenge OFAC regulations today, filing legal papers in federal court in New York for the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing division, the Association of American University Presses, the PEN American Center and Arcade Publishing.

They accuse OFAC—a powerful agency that has fined Wal-Mart, the New York Yankees and guitarist Ry Cooder—of violating the First Amendment and other laws exempting “informational materials” from trade sanctions.

Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise declined Friday to comment on the lawsuit. But she said there is “no restriction against” publishing, translating, copy editing or performing scholarly “peer review” of manuscripts from embargoed countries.

Millerwise added, however, more extensive editorial collaboration or co-authorship by Americans could be construed as illegally “providing a service.” Publishers with concerns should consult with OFAC, she said.

OFAC enforces sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 and the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The IEEE landed on OFAC’s radar screen in 2001 after a scientific conference in Iran.

Worried its volunteer staff could face prosecution, the engineering society curtailed privileges for Iranian members and pursued an OFAC license to publish Iranians in its journals.

OFAC stunned the IEEE last September by declaring simple editing functions, from reordering sentences to correcting grammar, were prohibited services.

Agency Director Richard Newcomb—who leaves OFAC this week—reversed course in April. Routine editing and limited peer review by U.S. scientists were allowed, he ruled. But the coalition fears Newcomb’s opinion applies only to the IEEE.

Fear of OFAC is making some U.S. journals and scientists shy away from co-authoring papers with Iranians, said Fredun Hojabri, president of the Sharif University of Technology Association in California. “Several of our members who wanted to publish joint papers with engineers in Iran about their research projects on the earthquake in Bam, Iran, are very angry and intimidated” by the situation with OFAC, Hojabri said via e-mail.

Others noted with irony that dissidents banned in Iran and Cuba can’t get published here, either. Publishers are “running scared,” said Marc Brodsky, chairman of the American Institute of Physics. “It’s an enormous loss all the way around,” said Peter Givler of the Association of American University Presses.

Kevin Coughlin can be reached at kcoughlin@starledger.com or (973) 392-1763.

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