Judge rules in favor of LePage, says mural can stay in closet

Posted April 22, 2011, at 4:48 p.m.
Last modified April 22, 2011, at 6:42 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A federal judge refused Friday to order Gov. Paul LePage to return a mural depicting the history of labor to a state office building in Augusta.

U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock agreed with LePage that the removal of the mural was “a constitutionally permissible exercise of gubernatorial authority.”

Attorneys for the artists and labor union representatives who filed the lawsuit earlier this month argued Tuesday in a hearing before Woodcock in federal court in Bangor that the mural’s removal violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and violated its free speech clause.

“Though his action provoked a storm of constitutionally-protected speech with a stark division between those who applauded his decision as rebalancing the state of Maine’s message to the business community and those who condemned his action as muzzling opposing viewpoints, the resolution of this vigorous debate must not rest with judicial authority of a federal court,” Woodcock wrote in his 45-page ruling. “It must rest instead with the ultimate authority of the people of the state of Maine to choose their leaders.”

The six plaintiffs — three artists, an attorney and two people who have said they regularly visit the Department of Labor building — claimed the administration violated their First Amendment rights by denying them access to the mural. They sued LePage on April 1 and filed a motion for a temporary restraining order seven days later to force LePage to return the artwork depicting the history of Maine’s labor movement.

The 11-panel mural was created by Tremont artist Judy Taylor — who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit — and hung in 2008 in the lobby of the Department of Labor.

It features women shipbuilders during World War II, the 1986 International Paper strike in Jay, child laborers and part-time Maine resident Frances Perkins, who as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary was integral to the creation of a minimum wage, Social Security and other aspects of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

LePage ordered the mural removed last month because he said it presented a one-sided view of history and wasn’t in keeping with his pro-business agenda.

Attorneys on both sides of the dispute issued press releases late Friday afternoon.

“Judge Woodcock correctly found that elected officials can and should express their views,” Attorney General William J. Schneider said of the decision. “This is as it should be because the voters of Maine therefore have a better idea what their elected officials stand for. The court agreed that it would be a dangerous precedent for a federal court to dictate how the state government should express its views.”

Deputy Attorney General Paul Stern, who argued on the governor’s behalf last week, also praised the decision.

“The thoroughness of the decision should put these issues to rest and make clear to the plaintiffs that the way to express their views is through the political rather than the judicial process,” he said.

Portland attorney Jeffrey Neil Young, who represented the plaintiffs, disagreed.

“We appreciate but respectfully disagree with Judge Woodcock’s decision and are reviewing the option of where to go from here,” he said. “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.

“This case transcended the courtroom,” Young continued. “People from around the world responded to the governor’s decision to remove this mural from the Maine Department of Labor’s walls. The fact is, the people of Maine do not want to be told by the government what they can, and cannot, see.”

The motion for the temporary restraining order dealt solely with First Amendment issues. Remaining issues in the lawsuit include whether LePage should have held an administrative hearing before having the mural removed and the plaintiffs’ request for a permanent injunction that would return the mural to its original home.

Attorneys most likely will discuss with Woodcock what the next step in the case should be in the next two weeks.

Click here to read the decision.

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