AUGUSTA, Maine — A federal judge will in March hear oral arguments from the parties in the lawsuit over Gov. Paul LePage’s decision last year to remove the labor mural from the Department of Labor building.
The state has asked Justice John A. Woodcock Jr. to dismiss the lawsuit, which would compel LePage to return the mural to the Department of Labor. The case has been slogging along for nearly a year.
The oral arguments will take place at 1 p.m. on March 1 at the Bangor Federal Courthouse.
Jeffrey Young, the attorney representing artists and others protesting the mural’s removal, said the hearing means the state will have to justify its decision. The plaintiffs have argued that removal was a violation of free-speech rights.
The state has countered that LePage was exercising his right to “government speech.”
Young, in a statement, said the plaintiffs were looking forward to the oral arguments.
“Since the governor has offered multiple conflicting reasons for removing the mural, we are very interested to hear directly from his defense team about which one is true,” Young said. “We believe regardless of the reason, the removal was not only illegal but also disrespectful to the many Maine workers throughout the years who have helped shape our great state.”
LePage has offered several reasons for taking down the mural, a decision that prompted outcry and national media attention. Initially the administration said the mural dominated the lobby of the Department of Labor and was too pro-union. As the controversy erupted, the administration said it had received complaints from business owners. It presented an anonymous letter in which the writer said the mural was reminiscent of the propaganda in communist North Korea.
Last September, LePage, during a panel discussion with NBC’s Brian Williams, said he didn’t object to the mural’s message, but how it was paid for.
Young said the administration’s change in position facilitated a number of briefs in the court case.
The plaintiffs first filed suit against the state last April to compel LePage to return the mural, reveal its location and ensure it is in good condition.
On April 22, 2011, a federal court denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction.
The plaintiffs are Don Berry of Sumner; John Newton, an industrial hygienist of Portland; and three Maine artists: Robert Shetterly of Brooksville, Natasha Mayers of Whitefield and Joan Braun of Weld.
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