A group of independent filmmakers sued the U.S. Information Agency in federal court here today, charging that the agency hampers international distribution of documentary films that are ideologically inconsistent with agency positions.
The suit, which names USIA Director Charles Z. Wick and USIA attestation officer John W. Mendenhall as defendants, was filed by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
The complaint alleges that the agency uses political criteria in refusing to grant export certificates to certain films, thereby violating the First and Fifth Amendments and the Beirut Agreement.
The United States entered into the Beirut Ageement in 1967. The treaty is designed to facilitate the international distribution of educational, scientific or cultural documentary films. Signatory nations grant certificates to such films, allowing duty-free import by other signatory nations. Distributors save thousands of dollars and avoid much red tape.
The agreement says films are educational, scientific or cultural when their "primary purpose is to instruct or inform . . . or when their content is such as to maintain, increase or diffuse knowledge, and augment international understanding and goodwill."
Interpretive guidelines to the agreement written by the USIA state that the agency will not certify films that "attempt to influence opinion, conviction or policy (religious, economic, or political propaganda), to espouse a cause, or conversely, when they seek to attack a particular persuasion . . . . "
Attorney David Cole, who filed the suit, said the USIA's "attempt to further define what the Beirut Agreement meant . . . says on its face that a film must present both sides of an argument. There is nothing inconsistent with presenting a point of view and being educational."
Cole said the USIA grants certificates to films with a point of view when the view matches its own. "They don't knock out films that are one-sided," he said. "They just knock out films that are one-sided and with which they disagree."
The suit asks for a declaration that certification was illegally denied to seven films and seeks an order to grant certificates. The films include "In Our Own Backyards: Uranium Mining in the U.S.," "Peace: A Conscious Choice," "Save the Planet," "Ecocide: A Strategy of War" and "From the Ashes . . . Nicaragua Today."
Among the agency-certified films cited in the suit are "Men Under Siege: Life with the Modern Woman," "The Family: God's Pattern for Living," "Radiation . . . Naturally," and "To Catch a Cloud: A Thoughtful Look at Acid Rain."
A USIA spokesman said the agency's legal department had not seen the suit and could not comment.