A federal judge on Tuesday questioned why he should rush to a decision on whether a mural depicting Maine's labor history should be put back on display as a federal lawsuit targeting the governor's decision to remove the artwork plays out in court.
Gov. Paul LePage sparked an uproar last month when he ordered the removal of the 36-foot-long mural from a Labor Department office in Augusta. The Republican governor said it presented a one-sided view of history.
An organized labor representative, a workplace safety official, three artists and an attorney sued, contending that LePage violated their First Amendment right of access to the artwork.
They asked Judge John Woodcock to order the multi-paneled art returned at once. Jeff Young, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the judge that people who visit the state office where the mural was housed "are suffering irreparable injury" because their free speech rights to see it are being abridged.
Woodcock, who has only seen newspaper pictures of the mural, expressed concern about judicial meddling, saying federal courts "are very reluctant ... to interfere with state government." He didn't give a time frame for ruling on the request for a temporary restraining order.
Assistant Attorney General Paul Stern defended the governor's action, telling the judge that the LePage administration was exercising its right to "government speech" when it removed the mural. Stern said that the contract between the artist, Judy Taylor, and state said the government could move the mural.
"It's been there for three years," Stern said. "Maybe it's time to put something else up."
But Young said the Constitution bars the government from taking down the artwork simply because it disagrees with a viewpoint.
"The First Amendment protects the listener or viewer," just as it protects a person expressing a viewpoint, Young said.
The 11-panel mural depicts many scenes from the state's labor history, including a pair of strikes, Rosie the Riveter during World War II, child laborers, textile mill workers and loggers. Each panel is 7 feet tall.
Before the hearing ended, Woodcock said it was interesting the way the dispute over a piece of art "which hardly anyone saw" has played out.
"In some ways that's healthy. We've had this very vibrant public debate about that piece of art," which "is now front and center," he said.
After the two-hour hearing, about three dozen people rallied outside the courthouse, accusing the governor of censorship and calling for the restoration of the artwork.
"We the people will free this mural. We'll get this mural restored," said Natasha Mayers of the Union of Maine Visual Artists.