Treasury Department regulations against editing manuscripts from Cuba, Iran and other countries under American economic sanctions violate the First Amendment of the Constitution and should be overturned, a group of American publishers said in a federal lawsuit filed yesterday.

Arcade Publishing, an independent book publisher, and three trade groups representing publishers and authors filed the suit in Federal District Court in Manhattan against the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which wrote and enforces the regulations, and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow.

The regulations, meant to keep Americans from trading with enemies, require anyone who publishes material from a country under trade sanctions to obtain a license before substantively altering the manuscript. The publishers say that keeps them from performing typical editing functions like reordering sentences and paragraphs, correcting grammar and adding illustrations or photographs.

The regulations do not forbid publication of existing works from those countries. They allow publishers to print and distribute materials that come to them in camera-ready form, that is, ready to be published without alteration. But they also restrict marketing materials, which the publishers say essentially prohibits publication.

The publishers argue that the regulations do not allow enough room for them to prepare material from foreign authors for the United States market and create a “chilling effect” on them. “For all practical purposes,” the suit states, “that means American publishers simply cannot publish their books.”

Molly Millerwise, a Treasury Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the suit. But she said that decisions this year by the Office of Foreign Assets Control had clarified what actions are allowed by publishers. These include an April 2004 decision that normal activities of peer review for a scholarly journal, such as “style and copy editing,” would not be prohibited.

But the publishers are making a more focused point, saying that in addition to violating their First Amendment rights the Treasury regulations violate laws passed by Congress that specifically exempt “information and information materials” from regulation under economic sanctions. The group filing the suit includes the Association of American University Presses, the Professional and Scholarly division of the Association of American Publishers and the PEN American Center, a group of authors, editors and translators.

Since 1988 Congress has enacted two measures that address informational materials from countries under economic sanctions. The first, known as the Berman Amendment after its sponsor, Representative Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat, says the executive branch may not “regulate or prohibit” the importation or exportation of publications, films, photographs, tapes or similar information.

But the Office of Foreign Assets Control interpreted the Berman Amendment to say that it could still prohibit “materials not fully created and in existence” at the time they were imported into the United States. That meant that American publishers could not promote or advertise materials already in existence in the countries under sanctions or pay advances for new works.

In 1992 Congress passed the Free Trade in Ideas Amendment, which sought to further refine the allowable transactions. Since then, the Treasury Department has issued several rulings seeking to clarify what is permitted. For example, in July it told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that a United States newspaper could edit a completed article by a writer in a country under sanctions, including deleting superfluous text or taking other actions as it would for one of its own writers.

But the book publishers said in their lawsuit that it is not clear that the interpretation applies to books, nor has the department retracted previous rulings on “substantive or artistic alteration or enhancement of informational materials.”

In one ruling, in September 2003, the Treasury Department said that American citizens could not edit or otherwise prepare an Iranian’s manuscripts for publication, including correcting syntax or grammar, which actions appear to be allowable under the July 2004 ruling.

Copyright © 2004 New York Times. All rights reserved.

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