A nationwide coalition of civil liberties, film and writing organizations charged Friday that the U.S. Information Agency "stifled the voices of dissent" by using an obscure federal regulation to thwart the export of seven documentary films with viewpoints opposed by the Reagan Administration.
The charge was raised in a 21-page legal brief filed in a seven-month-old Los Angeles federal district court lawsuit brought by a group of film makers accusing the agency of political censorship. The films deal with a variety of subjects ranging from childhood to nuclear war.
In related actions late last week, the agency broke months of silence on the controversial case. In interviews with The Times and Cable News Network, an agency official insisted that censorship "forms no part" of the agency's business.
And one former agency director said the current administration has turned the agency into an ideological tool.
The lawsuit centers on the agency's administration of the 1949 international "Beirut" agreement, now written into U.S. law, that allows signatory countries to issue to educational, scientific or cultural films certificates of character which, when presented to other participating countries, effectively waive duties and import taxes.
Although uncertified films may still be sent abroad, the plaintiffs maintain that the agency's refusal to grant them certificates hampers overseas distribution of their films. The plaintiffs argue that foreign distributors often balk at handling uncertified films.
The plaintiffs' argument was joined Friday by the amicus curiae or "friend of the court" brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with the International Documentary Assn., the New York-based Pen American Center, the Writers Guild West, the San Francisco-based Film Arts Foundation and the Nation Institute in New York.
The coalition argued that the agency has made a practice of certifying films with points of views approved by the Adminstration while denying certification to films with which it does not agree.
"It is apparent that the USIA regulations are being used to discriminate against points of view which do not hew to the political line preferred by USIA officials," the brief stated.
The overriding charge in both the original lawsuit, filed for the plaintiffs by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, and in the friend of the court brief is that the agency has violated First Amendment rights in denying certification.
"The regulations . . . represent an unconstitutional burden on plaintiffs' freedom of expression," the coalition's brief stated. "The USIA cannot be faulted for wishing to project a positive image of the U.S. abroad. But in its zealous pursuit of this goal, the USIA has stifled the voices of dissent and targeted what it perceives as critics of the present Administration for unfair, discriminatory treatment. In the process, plaintiffs' constitutional rights have been infringed."
Federal District Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima has the case under submission.
The controversial lawsuit has received widespread media attention, but the agency has repeatedly declined to comment publicly on the film makers' action. That position changed last week when Joseph Morris, the agency's chief of staff and general counsel under agency director Charles Z. Wick, stepped forward to defend the agency's certification process.
Morris declared that the lawsuit is nothing more than a "tax case" and called charges of censorship "false" during a live appearance on Cable News Network's "Showbiz Today."
"That the USIA or President Reagan would engage in censorship is a preposterous allegation," Morris said. "This contention that the U.S. government is engaged in censorship deserves to be declared false by the courts."
In a lengthy interview with The Times, Morris said, "I absolutely reject the contention that we censor; that is not what President Reagan wants. We reject censorship, it forms no part of how we conduct the USIA's business.
"Where the USIA is speaking to the world as America's voice of President Reagan's policy views, we speak clearly and in a strong voice--that's our mission," he declared.
But Morris hastened to add that "in the process of certifying films, there is no connection with projecting the foreign policy views of the American government of the day. In fact, films where there is a point of view on policy questions are not eligible, whether they support or oppose the administration."
Morris said no appointed government officials are involved in the film certification process.
"All screening is done by career civil and foreign-service officers. Director Wick is very conscientious about keeping his hands off the process, precisely because he doesn't want it to be said that his point of view is prevailing."