A Los Angeles judge Wednesday accused the U.S. Information Agency of "foot-dragging" in adopting new regulations for foreign distribution of documentary films that were ordered after a coalition of independent film makers sued the agency, accusing it of political censorship.
U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima gave the agency two months to issue new guidelines in response to his ruling last year, which declared the previous regulations unconstitutional.
Tashima's latest order was critical of the agency's slow progress in replacing the old regulations, under which independent film makers complained that they were often denied favorable export status for films critical of the Reagan Administration.
"This record indicates 'foot-dragging' and delay by the agency and a disregard of plaintiffs' First Amendment rights," Tashima wrote. "Given this delay, the court concludes that a deadline must be set for agency action."
At issue are regulations drafted in response to the so-called "Beirut Agreement," a 1949 international accord designed to promote worldwide communication. Under the regulations, makers of educational, scientific or cultural films that "instruct or inform" may avoid paying costly import taxes in other countries.
A determination by the agency that a film qualifies for educational certification allows film makers to avoid hefty import duties and red tape abroad and thereby distribute films that they might otherwise be unable to export.
In a lawsuit filed in 1985 by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the coalition of film makers challenged the agency's position that it could deny certification for documentaries that might be "misinterpreted" by foreign audiences "lacking adequate American points of reference" or whose primary purpose was "to advance a particular opinion" or attack a particular economic or political persuasion.
Agency Denies Allegations
In practice, said the plaintiffs' lawyer, David Cole, films on a variety of controversial issues--including the environment, drugs and U.S. policy in Nicaragua--were denied certification when they presented views contrary to those of the Reagan Administration.
Agency lawyers have denied that the regulations infringe on film makers' free speech rights, noting that the vast majority of films submitted receive certification and even those that are not certified can still be distributed if the film maker pays appropriate duties.
But the film makers in their suit claimed that import duty costs can be prohibitive and 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.
The USIA unsuccessfully sought to have Tashima's order directing the issuing of new regulations delayed until the agency's appeal is decided. The matter is before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But the USIA's only action to adopt new regulations came eight months after Tashima's original order, when the agency issued an "advance notice of proposed rule-making in the Federal Register," the judge noted.
"This . . . is nothing more than a brief, two-page summary of this litigation and this country's participation in the Beirut Agreement," Tashima said.
"Defendants' opposition to the motion does not explain the delay . . . in preparation and publication of this relatively simple document. Nor have defendants suggested any timetable which they believe to be reasonable within which to promulgate new regulations," the judge said.
Cole said the agency has effectively halted review of all documentaries pending adoption of new regulations, resulting in a backlog of thousands of films awaiting certification.
"We consider this to be an important victory, and we believe that it was necessary because the USIA was essentially acting as if they had gotten a stay (of Tashima's order)," Cole said. "It was really pretty outrageous."
An attorney for the USIA declined to comment on Tashima's new order, which gives the agency until Nov. 16 to publish new regulations, which would take effect 30 days later.
If the regulations are not published by then, Tashima ordered the agency to reconsider the film makers' applications for certification directly under terms of the Beirut Agreement within the same timetable.