Saturday, December 11, 2004

Bush’s War on Writers

From the Seattle Times:

In an apparent reversal of decades of U.S. practice, recent federal Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations bar American companies from publishing works by dissident writers in countries under sanction unless they first obtain U.S. government approval.

The restriction, condemned by critics as a violation of the First Amendment, means that books and other works banned by some totalitarian regimes cannot be published freely in the United States.

“It strikes me as very odd,” said Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University and former constitutional legal counsel to former presidents Reagan and Bush. “I think the government has an uphill struggle to justify this constitutionally.”

Several groups, led by the PEN American Center and including Arcade Publishing, have filed suit in U.S. District Court in New York seeking to overturn the regulations, which cover writers in Iran, Sudan, Cuba, North Korea and, until recently, Iraq.

Violations carry severe reprisals — publishing houses can be fined $1 million and individual violators face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“Historically, the United States has served as a megaphone for dissidents from other countries,” said Ed Davis of New York, a lawyer leading the PEN legal challenge. “Now we’re not able to hear from dissidents.”

Yet more than dissident voices are affected.

The regulations already have led publishers to scrap plans for volumes on Cuban architecture and birds, and publishers complain that the rules threaten the intellectual breadth and independence of academic journals.

Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has joined the lawsuit, arguing that the rules preclude American publishers from helping craft her memoirs of surviving Iran’s Islamic revolution and her efforts to defend human rights in Iranian courts.

In a further wrinkle, even if publishers obtain a license for a book — something they are loathe to do — they believe the regulations bar them from advertising it, forcing readers to find the dissident works on their own.

“It’s absolutely against the First Amendment,” fumed Arcade editor Richard Seaver, who hopes to publish an anthology of Iranian short stories. “We’re not going to ask permission (to publish). That reeks of censorship.”

Officials from the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees OFAC, declined comment on the lawsuit, but spokeswoman Molly Millerwise described the sanctions as “a very important part of our overall national security.”

“These are countries that pose serious threats to the United States, to our economy and security and our well-being around the globe,” Millerwise said, adding that publishers can still bring dissident writers to American readers as long as they first apply for a license.

“The licensing is a very important part of the sanctions policy because it allows people to engage with these countries,” Millerwise said. “Anyone is free to apply to OFAC for a license.”

Critics say they shouldn’t have to.

“We have a long tradition of not accepting prior restraint,” said Wendy Strothman of Boston, who hopes to serve as Ebadi’s literary agent should the regulations be struck down. “The notion of getting a license seems to me to be completely counter to the spirit of the First Amendment. … It’s really, for me, mostly about the notion of freedom of expression.”

Why am I not surprised? But then again, the Bush administration has never really been comfortable with the idea of freedom of speech. Ironically, a true conservative would embrace the writers from sanctioned nations – rub the tyrants’ noses in our freedom to print whatever it is they are afraid to print. But the Bush administration has proven time and time again that they are not conservatives in the true sense of the word.

Thanks to the Faithful Correspondent for the lead via The Smirking Chimp.