WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, a two-person office at the U.S. Information Agency suddenly began reviewing 3,590 films, maps, charts and other audio-visual materials it had accumulated during more than a year of inaction.
Fourteen months after a federal judge ruled that the USIA had exceeded its authority and acted like a censor in deciding what materials to recommend for duty-free status under a 1948 international agreement, the agency was back in the movie-review business.
But the underlying dispute between a segment of the $1 billion-a-year educational-film industry and the USIA is far from over.
Neither the film makers nor the agency are happy with the interim reviewing rules that the USIA published last month. Both will be back in federal court in Los Angeles on Monday morning and will request a judge to rule on the issue again.
To lawyers for the public-interest group that won the initial ruling in the fall of 1986, the issue that U.S. District Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima will confront raises the same broad constitutional questions about free speech that his earlier decision seemingly resolved.
David Cole, a lawyer for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is challenging the new rules as unconstitutional, said this week the problem is that the USIA is unwilling to divorce itself from its role "as our government's public relations arm" and refuses to permit exporting of films that may not support the agency's rosy view of America.
"While it's acceptable for the USIA to impose certain views on the films it produces, the agency can't seem to get it in their heads that they can't impose those kind of standards on independent film makers and their films," Cole said.
To Justice Department attorneys, who have appealed Tashima's 1986 ruling, the issue is just as important: whether the USIA has to sanction audio-visual products it believes are biased, inaccurate or purely propagandistic.
Tashima had brushed those arguments aside last year, declaring that the rules under which the agency had decided which films are "educational" and which are "propaganda" were unconstitutional on their face and therefore invalid. The agency, to the shock of many film makers, abruptly stopped reviewing all audio-visual materials and declared it could not act until it had new regulations.
Shortly after those rules were published Nov. 18, the film makers returned to court, charging that USIA again was attempting to play censor in determining what films qualify for duty-free recommendations.
These recommendations are often vital to the small film makers who dominate the educational film industry, according to Cole and others. The high import taxes that many nations attempt to levy on U.S. films make it impossible for these film makers to profitably export their films and deny them significant markets, Cole said.
Entertainment films are not eligible for duty-free status under the 1948 agreement. Thus "the people who can least afford it are the ones most affected" by the USIA's recommendations, Cole said.
When it published the "interim rules" in November, USIA declared that it didn't want to impose them in the first place and that, if the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns Tashima's earlier ruling, it would simply revert to the old regulations.
What angered the film makers as much as the new regulations was one provision that would call for the USIA to include a statement in export certificates "to advise foreign governments when audio-visual material is presented in such a way as to constitute political, economic or religious propaganda." That, the film makers charged, "effectively requires a sort of surgeon general's warning on all films."
"It is difficult to conceive of any documentary film that does not 'present . . . viewpoint for which different viewpoint(s) . . . may exist'," they said, quoting sections of the interim rules calling for approved films to refer to various points of view on the film's subject.