In December 1985 the CCR filed suit on behalf of a number of filmmakers whose documentaries were denied “certificates of educational character” by the United States Information Agency (USIA). Such certificates are granted pursuant to an international treaty to facilitate the free flow of ideas among nations. Obtaining a certificate is important because the treaty exempts certified documentaries from Customs duties and other import restrictions. Without such certificates, international distribution of films is substantially hindered.
The suit, filed in a Los Angeles federal district court, charges the USIA with using the certification process in a politically biased manner to prevent certain films from being seen abroad. Those films which the USIA views as critical of U.S. policies and practices-particularly on the topics of nuclear war, environmental problems, and Central America-have been denied certificates of educational character on the ground that they “present a point of view.” Yet industry-sponsored films on similar subjects, such as the Edison Electric Institute’s “To Catch a Cloud: A Thoughtful Look at Acid Rain;’ have been granted certificates.
The district court struck down the regulation used by the USIA to deny certificates to plaintiffs’ films as unconstitutional. It held that the regulations were hopelessly vague and impermissibly permitted USIA officials to play the role of censor. It enjoined the USIA from denying certificates to any film based on the challenged regulations. The USIA appealed and unsuccessfully sought a stay of the court’s injunction until the appellate court could hear the case.
David Cole, Margaret Ratner; Michael Ratner; Morton Stavis, with CCR cooperating attorney Ben Margolis