Federal judge nixes request to replace Maine mural

AP News
Posted: Apr 22, 2011 6:08 PM
Federal judge nixes request to replace Maine mural

A federal judge on Friday denied a request to order Maine to return a mural to a state Labor Department office where it was removed last month, causing an uproar.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock ruled that Gov. Paul LePage's order to remove the 36-foot-long mural in late March constituted government speech, or the right of government to say what it wishes regardless of the viewpoint expressed. The judge said the government had that right because the state commissioned, approved, paid for and owned the labor-themed mural.

LePage, a first-term Republican governor, had ordered the removal of the mural, saying it presented a one-sided view of history. Critics of his action sued, contending that the governor violated their First Amendment right of access to the artwork.

"It is not the business of the federal court to decide what messages the elected leaders of the state of Maine should send about the policies of the state, to tell a prior administration that its own artwork is too slanted to continue to hang on state office walls, to tell the current administration that it must not remove or replace a prior administration's artwork, or to tell a future administration which piece of state art, the new or the old, must stay or go," Woodcock wrote.

Maine Attorney General William Schneider applauded Woodcock's decision, saying the judge correctly found that elected officials "can and should express their views." Schneider said the judge agreed with the state "that it would be a dangerous precedent for a federal court to dictate how the state government should express its views."

Friday's ruling denied a motion for a temporary restraining order to put the mural back up where it had been displayed. The larger lawsuit claiming First Amendment violations continues. Plaintiffs include a union member, artists and others.

Jeffrey Neil Young, attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed with Woodcock's decision.

"We may have lost this preliminary skirmish in the court of law, but we already have won in the hearts and minds of Maine people," Young said in a statement.

The mural was installed in 2008 when Democrat John Baldacci was governor. Among the scenes it depicts are a 1986 paper mill strike; the fictional World War II icon Rosie the Riveter at work in a shipyard; and New Deal-era U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member, whose parents were from Maine.