Congratulations! Edit an Article, and We Probably Won't Jail You!


That's the basic spin on an announcement Monday by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control that American publishers of texts originating from fully embargoed countries (Iran, Cuba, Libya, Sudan) can go ahead and do some editing and peer-review without being subject to a 10-year prison sentence.

The somewhat complicated back story: Last September, OFAC, which always finds inventive ways to restrict American freedoms in the name of national security, ruled [PDF] that laying editorial hands on an Iranian's article -- even so much as the "reordering of paragraphs or sentences, correction of syntax, grammar, and replacement of inappropriate words" -- could be construed as a "service" provided to a foreign undesirable, and therefore illegal under the Trading With the Enemy Act and International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Besides being of dubious constitutionality, the OFAC ruling also seemed to run clearly afoul of the 1988 Berman Amendment -- which specifically exempts the trade of "information or informational material" from various embargoes -- and the 1994 Free Trade in Ideas Amendment, which expanded the don't-ban list to CD-ROMs and other new media. (For a convincing legal analysis, try the Association of American Publishers.)

The tightening went largely unnoticed outside of technical publishing circles until February, when a Democracy Now! broadcast and a subsequent New York Times article drew attention and criticism (including a withering letter to OFAC from Congressman Howard Berman). So Monday's announcement is being greeted as a significant climb-down.

But the reality is, the bar for government infringement on speech has once again been lowered. Looking at the actual text of the new ruling [PDF], OFAC Director Richard Newcomb reaffirms the federal government's intention to prohibit "substantive or artistic alteration or enhancement" of editorial work originating in fully embargoed countries. In addition, "we would consider a prohibited exportation of services to occur when a collaborative interaction takes place between an author in a Sanctioned Country and one or more U.S. scholars resulting in co-authorship or the equivalent thereof." This would effectively ban the U.S. publishing of, say, Cuban baseball historians, since such work would require a serious amount of "collaborative interaction."

Perhaps the worst part about this government restriction of American speech is that it makes absolutely no sense from a National Security point of view. It's not Iranian words that threaten us, it's that nucular stuff. And any government action that has the effect of limiting dissident communication with the outside world strikes me as not just unconstitutional and counter-productive, but deeply immoral.