Some film makers have gone so far as to describe the USIA's position as being little different from the politics of suppression practiced in the Soviet Union
A Los Angeles federal district judge is scheduled to hear arguments today on whether the United States Information Agency uses an obscure regulation to thwart the export of documentary films that do not mirror the viewpoint of the Reagan Administration.
The hearing in the downtown federal courthouse involves a seven-month-old lawsuit charging that the USIA hampered the overseas distribution of seven U.S.-made documentaries on subjects ranging from nuclear war to Nicaragua.
The case, closely followed among film makers, raises questions about government censorship and tests the USIA's position that it may deny favorable export considerations for documentaries presenting opinions that may be "misinterpreted" by foreign audiences.
Some film makers have gone so far as to describe the USIA's position as being little different from the politics of suppression practiced in the Soviet Union.
The Soviets' language to justify their film censorship is "almost identical to that used by the USIA," said Robert Guenette, president of the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Assn., which has filed a friend-of-the court brief opposing the USIA action (see accompanying story).
Federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima is expected to rule this morning on several motions in the case, including a government request for dismissal and a plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment.
The suit was filed in December by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based public-interest law firm, on behalf of the documentaries' film makers and distributors.
David Cole, attorney for the center, said in a telephone interview that the USIA is acting "inconsistently" in its treatment of the films.
The government, Cole said, does "not knock out all films with a point of view, only those with which they disagree."
The USIA declined to discuss the case. "We would prefer to respond in court rather than in the media," an agency spokesman said.
Attorney Cole's clients allege that the USIA hampered the overseas distribution of their films by denying them certifications that would have effectively waived import taxes and lessened bureaucratic red tape in foreign countries.
The plaintiffs claim in their suit that many foreign distributors refuse to handle films not certified by the USIA because of the time and money involved in bringing a film through customs.
In a letter to The Times, the agency said in February that it issues "certificates of educational character" to "qualifying producers of audio-visual materials, which may encourage importing countries to waive or lower import fees."
The certification process stems from a 1949 international agreement adopted by the United States in 1967 and administered by the USIA.
The agreement specifies that makers of educational, scientific or cultural films that "instruct or inform" may avoid paying often costly import taxes in other countries. The agreement does apply to feature-length entertainment films or to product-promotion films.
The USIA estimates that it certifies 2,000-3,000 films a year--95% of all that are submitted. The agency insists that it has "no power to restrict the export of any materials."
The plaintiffs allege that the USIA, its director Charles Wick, and chief attestation officer (film certifier) John Mendenhall, by denying certification, violated the First and Fifth amendments, as well as the intent of the original international agreement. The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the USIA regulation unconstitutional and to order the agency to certify the seven documentaries.
In court documents, USIA attorneys contend that the agency denied certification because the documentaries failed to meet criteria outlined in the disputed federal regulation.
Among other objections cited by the USIA were that films could be "misinterpreted or misunderstood by foreign audiences lacking adequate American points of reference" and that they "did not have as (their) primary purpose the intent to instruct or inform, but to advance a particular opinion."
The lawsuit marks the second time during the Reagan Administration that charges of film censorship have been leveled at a government agency. In 1983, the Justice Department classified as "political propaganda" three documentaries produced by the National Film Board of Canada--two on the politically charged issue of acid rain and the other, "If You Love This Planet," an anti-nuclear film which went on to win an Academy Award that year. A case involving those films currently is before the U.S. Supreme Court.