A YEAR BEFORE George Orwell predicted, Big Brother is watching over you. He withholds documents subpoenaed by Congress, censors foreign films, and limits the free flow of information essential to any democracy. The recent Justice Department decision to label three Canadian films as "political propaganda" and to monitor their screening exemplifies yet again the Reagan Administration's negative attitude towards open debate and complete freedom of information and expression.
The current Administration has already exhibited a dangerous proclivity to withhold information. It has attempted to hide potentially self-incriminating documents on a variety of fronts, attacking the Freedom of Information Act, proposed restrictions on "advocacy" (including lobbying) by any group receiving Federal grants, and most recently withholding documents subpoenaed by Congress on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency. Last month's move against three films continues this trend of stifling open debate--debate which focuses this time on the highly deleterious effects of acid rain and the nuclear arms buildup. Of the three Canadian films censored by the Justice Department, two deal with the certifiably damaging effects of acid rain, and one, featuring activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, addresses the dire need for a curb on the ever-escalating arms buildup.
Certain clauses of the Foreign Agents Registration Act allow the Justice Department to review foreign-produced or distributed films and decide which of them shall be deemed "political propaganda." A Justice spokesman has asserted that the term is broad enough to include "a film about a country that boasts good seaports and low taxes."
Those materials certified as propaganda must carry a United States government disclaimer warning that a foreign agent produced the films and that the U.S. opposes the content. In addition, to labelling the films as political propaganda, the Justice Department collects the names of all organizations and individuals who pay to show the films. These so-called "foreign agents" can make no campaign contributions and usually are liable to counter-intelligence surveillance. Furthermore, any other information disseminated by these ostensible foreign agents can be labelled as propaganda.
The Reagan Administration has made full use of these McCarthyesque statutes to suppress information inimical to its own insular arms. In the last two years, the Justice Department has dismissed half of the foreign films it reviews as propaganda. In the case of the three most recent subjects of censure, the Justice has quite obviously targeted the films because they address two controversial topics, the need for environmental protection and a curb on the nuclear arms buildup.
But these attempts to shield the public and policymakers from the facts about such currently debated issues directly oppose the Constitution. The clauses of the Foreign Agents Registration Act which deal with "political propaganda" must be eliminated. They are an egregious violation of the First Amendment, which insures free speech and the free flow of information. Fortunately, the government's attempts to stifle debate have in this case instigated more lively and widespread discourse.
ACCORDING TO MOST REPORTS, the two films dealing with acid rain--"Acid From Heaven" and "Acid Rain: Requiem or Recovery"--present a low-key, moderate account of one of the most highly injurious forms of air pollution. Acid rain, which results from sulfur dioxide emissions from coal and some power plants, poses a tremendous threat to the environment. Produced mainly in the Eastern U.S., it acidifies lakes and streams, killing fish and other aquatic wildlife, and has been found to cause excessive root decay to forests and crops and to corrode man-made structures. The human dangers of acid rain are twofold: sulfur dioxide interferes with the respiratory system, and acidified water pulls toxic metals out of water supply piping. About one-half the acid rain which falls on Canada originates in the Eastern belt of the United States, which generates 221/2 tons of sulfur dioxide annually.
The Justice Department has censored these two Canadan films specifically because they deal with a sensitive issue which the Administration would like to ignore. The Clean Air Act, under its existing 1970-authorized form, contains no provisions for this highly toxic form of pollution. The Act expired in 1981 and is on Congress' agenda for reauthorization, but the Reagan Administration has so far postponed the inclusion of a clause to oversee these emissions.
The third film "If You Love This Planet," resembles previous films featuring anti-nuclear activist Caldicott, presenting an emotional plea to end the suicidal arms race. Comparable films, such as "Seven Minutes to Midnight," have been shown to Justice officials numerous times before. But perhaps this time they were offended by the inclusion of a clip from "Jap Zero," a film in which Reagan, as a combat flyer, asks, "How soon do I get a chance to knock one of them down?"
The recent U.S.-Canadian agreement that may lead to the testing of unarmed cruise missiles over Canada makes both these topics of particular interest to Canada. The extensive protest of the propaganda" ruling in Canada as well as the United States--where suits have been filed challenging the validity of the Foreign Agents Registration Act--could damage our presently friendly relations with our neighbor.
But the Justice Department's actions have ironically had the reverse of their intended effect. The Canadian and American brouhaha has brought these relatively obscure documentaries, and, more importantly, the issues they discuss, to public attention and considerable popularity.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has arranged for an airing of all three films on the congressional closed-circuit television network; the Biograph Theatre in Washington has been showing the films to sellout crowds, cancelling Hitchcock flicks to do it. And producer Joseph Papp plans to show the films at his public New York theatre.
This backlash against the ruling by aware politicans and theatre-owners has been accompanied by a violent reaction on the part of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which plans to file suit against the Justice Department. The Justice Department has stumbled upon an unexpected way of bringing information to the public eye: trying to ban it.