Fate of Labor Mural in Hands of Federal Judge

By Harrison, Judy | Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), March 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Fate of Labor Mural in Hands of Federal Judge


Harrison, Judy, Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME)


BANGOR, Maine -- The fate of a 36-foot mural depicting Maine's labor history is now in the hands of a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock will decide whether the artwork is government speech or private speech under the First Amendment in a lawsuit filed last year over the removal of the mural at the behest of Gov. Paul LePage.

The lawsuit claims that LePage violated the mural artist's constitutional right to free speech when he ordered the mural removed from state Labor Department's offices last March. LePage had it removed because he considered it biased in favor of organized labor over business interests, according to previously published reports.

Woodcock heard oral arguments Thursday on the state's motion for summary judgment. If the judge rules in the state's favor, the case would be dismissed. If he rules for the plaintiffs -- three artists, an attorney and two people who have said they regularly visit the Department of Labor building -- the case would go to trial.

Deputy Attorney General Paul Stern argued that because the state, during Gov. John Baldacci's administration, originated the theme, picked Judy Taylor to be the artist, accepted her proposal for the work, reviewed the art as it was being formed and paid $60,000 for it in 2008, the mural is government speech.

Jonathan Beal of Portland, who represented the plaintiffs, said the Tremont artist, who is not a party in the lawsuit, submitted an affidavit to the court stating that she was not guided by the parameters outlined in the call for artistic proposals while she was creating the work.

"The state must express its own ideas for it to be government speech," Beal told Woodcock. "Just because art is paid for by the state does not make it government speech."

"By your logic, every time the government commissions works of art, it's never government speech, it's always an expression of the artist's creativity," Woodcock said.

The judge expressed concern that whenever there is a change of administration and a piece of art were to be removed, a federal lawsuit could be filed.

"Are there enough judges and lawyers in the state to handle that?" Woodcock asked.

Beal told Woodcock that he did not think there would be a spate of lawsuits over artwork.

"This is a one-time event brought on by the intemperate actions by a governor, which caused understandable political and artistic reaction," Beal said. "I think there are already regulations in place to allow for the orderly resolution of disputes about the public showing of art owned by state."

He also said that artwork such as the mural is actually owned by the Maine State Museum, which has a procedure for removing it that LePage did not follow. …

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Fate of Labor Mural in Hands of Federal Judge
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