A Los Angeles federal district court judge delayed a decision Monday in a controversial lawsuit alleging film censorship by the United States Information Agency until a side issue is clarified--whether U.S. citizens have a right to free speech abroad.
Judge A. Wallace Tashima heard pre-trial motions in the seven-month-old suit filed against the USIA by a group of documentary film makers. They allege that the agency thwarted the export of seven documentary films on a variety of issues from childhood to nuclear war because the films did not mirror the Reagan Administration's viewpoint.
The judge gave attorneys for both sides 10 days to file supplemental briefs addressing what he termed "a damn good question--whether or not the First Amendment applies abroad."
Tashima acknowledged that attorneys for the USIA and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (which filed the suit on behalf of the film makers) had both cited the same Supreme Court case involving First Amendment rights overseas. The judge noted that the case was finally decided on different merits and that the issue of free speech was "just assumed" to be part of that decision.
According to the attorney representing the film makers, Tashima's request was tangential to the rest of the case, but an "important constitutional issue."
The case centers around a set of obscure federal regulations derived from the 1949 international "Beirut" agreement. The regulations, written and interpreted by the USIA, give the agency authority to issue educational, scientific or cultural films certificates of "educational character." The certificates often result in other countries waiving import taxes on the films.
David Cole, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that USIA regulations allow the agency "to discriminate on the basis of political viewpoint." He said that the USIA grants certificates only to those films that reflect the current Administration's attitudes.
"They do so under regulations that are so vague that they invite administrative officials to make their own rulings," Cole said. "In that way the government is acting beyond its constitutional authority in restricting those rights."
"Is it constitutional that 'Save the Planet' (one of the disputed films) was denied certification because, according to the USIA, it resurrected guilt by stating that the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima?" he asked.
Cole added that the original Beirut treaty stipulated that the certification process be implemented to "promote the free flow of ideas through word and image." He said that information shouldn't be judged on whether it is "pro or anti the Reagan Administration."
Government attorney Richard Stearns argued that the regulations were "neutral with respect to the political content of films," and that the regulations "have the backing of UNESCO, which authored and sponsored the Beirut agreement."
Stearns added that USIA reviewers were the best equipped to properly evaluate "how foreign audiences react to a film." He also stated that such decisions were made by "senior career officials who have this expertise in foreign-relations matters." He suggested that "embarrassment or harm" to U.S. foreign policy or to foreign countries could result if two government entities (i.e., the USIA and the courts) became involved in certifying films.
Plaintiffs' attorney Cole responded to Stearns' remarks by reiterating that the court was only being asked to discuss the constitutionality of the regulations as applied by the USIA.
Cole added, "If it's embarrassing to be told to comply with the Beirut agreement, then that's an embarrassment the USIA will have to live with."
FOR THE RECORD: An article in Monday's Calendar regarding the lawsuit against the United States Information Agency contained a misstatement, due to an editing error. A 1949 international agreement that allows makers of educational, scientific and cultural films to avoid paying import taxes overseas does not apply to feature-length entertainment films or to product-promotion films.