Don't Play it Again, Sam

Festival International puts the clamps on an anti-George W. Bush song and considers a new policy that raises free speech and censorship issues.

Singer Ruth Ungar was stunned by the request.

On Sunday, April 24, Ungar was reveling in the near-perfect atmosphere of this year's Festival International. After last year's rain-out and resulting financial difficulties, the 2005 festival was rebounding beautifully with perfect weather and substantial crowds. Ungar was thrilled to be part of the festivities; the New York-based singer has extensive ties to Acadiana. She's previously played Festival International with her father, fiddler Jay Ungar, who was close with the late Dewey Balfa. Ruth is also friends with members of local ensembles like The Red Stick Ramblers.

Ungar's band, The Mammals, played a set at the Community Coffee Scène Lafayette stage at Festival International on Saturday, April 23. For its encore, the band performed its song "The Bush Boys," which contains lines such as:

Listen up folks the votes are in
It was anyone's guess who'd win
Democrats had the higher amount
But they lost 'cause Florida could not count â?¦
You won't believe what the Bush boys bought.

Ungar was milling about the hospitality tent the following day preparing for The Mammals' next performance when Festival International VP of Programming Jimmie Duhon approached her and asked her not to play "The Bush Boys" again.

"Our festival is about building unity, and we as a festival feel like political bashing does not help build unity," says Duhon. "We got numerous phone calls from people who did not appreciate the song. Executive Director Dana [Cañedo] and I felt it necessary to ask the band not to do something that goes against the festival's belief."

Ungar told Duhon that the band rarely repeats songs in successive performances, and The Mammals didn't plan to play "Bush Boys" again. But after Duhon appeared satisfied with that answer and walked away, Ungar contemplated their conversation. "I had an unsettling feeling," she says. "I thought, 'What is the underlying request here?' So I walked back over to him and told him we were definitely not doing that song, but I couldn't promise there'd be no songs with political content and couldn't make any promises about stage banter."

The band's performance later that day went off without further incident, but the aftermath of the "Bush Boys" performance is rippling through the Festival International organization. "There will be a policy put in place to make sure this doesn't happen again," says Duhon. "We don't want to censor, but we do want to promote unity. It was an oversight on our part by allowing someone like that to play the festival."

Cañedo says the festival office received approximately 17 calls complaining about The Mammals' "Bush Boys" song and maintains the decision to ask the band not to play it again had nothing to do with censorship. "My biggest concern was that the band would be treated unfairly," she says. "No matter what side of the [political] fence you're on, I'd hate to have people boo a band. We just tried to make it as safe as possible for the band."

As a result of the incident, the festival's band contracts will be reviewed. "We're looking at a lot of different issues, not just the political things," says Cañedo. "We're taking our contract apart and looking at the whole thing to make sure it works for the times we're in."

Certain requirements and stipulations are common in arts and entertainment contracts; when a private entity hires and pays a performer, it has the right to negotiate and demand terms on everything from the length of the performance to the number of songs performed. But Festival International would be traveling into murky territory if it implements language in its contracts that's perceived as restricting free speech.

Such language could impact the festival's numerous international bands that it books to help fulfill its mission as a Francophone festival. Previous festival performers such as Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo & Blacks Unlimited, Senegal's Baaba Maal and South Africa's Lucky Dube have forged their careers with songs protesting corrupt government and politics. It remains to be seen whether such acclaimed bands would feel comfortable performing under speech restrictions, but Duhon doesn't see that as an issue.

"In those cases, they're speaking against dictatorship, and they're pro-democracy," he says.

One of the challenges of creating such a policy for performers is the vague boundaries of what would and would not be permitted. "The line between artistic speech and political speech is sometimes difficult to discern," says Christine Corcos, an associate professor of law at LSU and a specialist in First Amendment law. And Vincent Booth, president of ACLU of Louisiana, says crafting the language of such a policy is nearly impossible. "The slippery slope you get on with restricting First Amendment rights is either you'd have to have a dictionary [to understand the policy], or be so vague and overbroad that you can't possible define the offending language," he says. "I can't imagine how someone can say in a paragraph or less what you can and can't say [on stage]."

Even Cañedo's unsure of how such a policy would be enforced. "I'm not sure if there's anything you can do to keep that kind of thing from happening," she says. "We're not the music police."

Festival International's relationship with Lafayette Consolidated Government also raises a host of issues about the ramifications of such a policy. "This festival is on the streets of the city of Lafayette and in public parks," says Booth. "This is the essence of the problem: using city property in a means inconsistent with the Constitution."

It gets even stickier when the issue of government funding is involved. The festival also receives more than $80,000 annually from LCG and state agency grants; Corcos says a new booking policy wouldn't automatically disqualify Festival International from receiving government funds. "A private entity that is primarily interested in putting on an artistic festival might reasonably take the position that politics is irrelevant or even antithetical to an artistic festival," she says. "So it could represent to a funding agency that it would be interested only in the quality of the artists, and the funding agency would respond, 'Well that's perfectly fine.'

"As long as the emphasis is on the aesthetics, rather than on the viewpoints involved, I think this approach may pass constitutional muster," she continues. "After all, someone has to decide, on some criteria, who gets in, and what the rules will be in terms of what kind of subject matter will be presented. Some kind of accounting will have to be made to the funding agency when everything is over."

Still, she believes such an example is not cut and dried. "I don't know how one could justify giving taxpayer money to an organization that restricts free speech," she says. "And political speech is at the heart of the First Amendment."

For her part, Ungar still feels badly about the whole incident. "I can't speak for the whole band, but I wish we had played another song," she says. "We have a lot of other songs with a subtler message. If this experience has encouraged people to think about free speech, that's good, but I'd rather everyone have a good time. I'm not ashamed of playing the song, either. Sometimes people believe that a festival is not a place to think about anything negative ' it's supposed to be a party."