USIA Revises Stand on Documentary Films

Associated Press

Under court order, the U.S Information Agency has revised its opinion regarding two documentary films previously denied certification for duty-free status abroad, agency officials said.

The revision was ordered by a Los Angeles federal judge hearing a suit brought by a group of film makers against the USIA, claiming the agency practiced unconstitutional censorship.

The documentary “Whatever Happened to Childhood?” was passed unconditionally and “From the Ashes . . . Nicaragua Today,” was allowed tax-free status with a “propaganda” warning label attached.

The other four films were left uncertified, under agency guidelines that exported audio or visual materials given certificates for import tax exemption must have “educational, scientific or cultural character.”


“We believe that these decisions demonstrate the continuing unconstitutionality of the agency’s role as a censor in documentary films,” said David Cole, an attorney for the Center of Constitutional Rights, which in 1985 brought the suit on behalf of the film makers.

“The countries we trade with have agreed that propaganda is not educational, scientific or cultural material,” USIA spokeswoman Jane Taylor said.

In October 1986, U.S. District Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled unconstitutional the criteria for government approval of duty-free status, and he ordered the agency to change them and review the six films involved in the suit.

The center challenged the agency’s new regulations on Jan. 4, claiming they were still unconstitutional.


The controversy is the result of the Beirut Treaty of 1948, a trade agreement in which 72 nations still participate. The treaty called for the free tariffs on audio or visual material deemed to be of educational, scientific or cultural value.

“We’ve struggled to come up with revised regulations that would carry out Judge Tashima’s order, and at the same time honor the terms of the Beirut agreement,” Taylor said.

The USIA said a film cannot be certified if it misrepresents the United States, persuades a single point of view, lends itself to misinterpretation, or is propaganda.

Cole said the USIA’s guidelines mean that a “government official can find any film uncertifiable if he finds any opinion not included in the film, or any point of view not accurately acknowledged.”

Films which are denied certification may still be distributed, but internationally releases will be charged import taxes. Documentary makers covet certification, which saves money and eliminates bureaucratic red tape, Cole said.