AUGUSTA, Maine — The drawn-out battle over public access to a mural removed this spring from the Department of Labor at the request of Gov. Paul LePage — a decision that drew national attention — is entering a new chapter.
Last month, Maine’s attorney general submitted a request for summary judgment in hopes of avoiding a trial in the fight over the controversial removal of the massive mural that details Maine’s labor history.
On Friday, lawyers for the group of plaintiffs suing Gov. Paul LePage for denying the public access to that 36-foot, 11-panel mural filed a response that opposes the request and urges a federal judge to grant a trial.
If U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock grants the state’s motion for summary judgment, it would mean all factual issues have been resolved or the facts are so one-sided that a trial is not needed.
If he denies the request, a trial could convene later this year.
The mural was taken down from the lobby of the Department of Labor office building on March 26 at the request of LePage, who said its depictions were biased in favor of organized labor at the expense of business interests.
LePage ordered the mural’s removal reportedly after he received complaints. Asked to provide evidence of those complaints, the administration produced one letter, signed only by a “secret admirer,” that calls the artwork propaganda similar to what is used in communist North Korea “to brainwash the masses.” The letter called on LePage to “tear down this mural.”
Even during his campaign, the Republican governor was a vocal critic of unions.
“When you walk into that lobby, there’s a clear [pro-union] message that comes across,” the governor’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said shortly before the mural’s removal. “There’s a new message in Augusta, and that’s that the governor works for the people, all the people, not just a single group.”
During the recent legislative session, LePage and other Republicans initiated “right-to-work” legislation that would allow workers in union shops to forgo paying dues if they choose not to join the union. Labor groups vehemently oppose right-to-work laws and equate them to union-busting.
Lawmakers did not act on the union-related legislation, but the debate is expected to continue when the legislature reconvenes early next year.
Despite widespread speculation and numerous rumors, the current location of the mural, installed in 2008 under then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, still has not been revealed. Most believe it is in storage somewhere in Augusta.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor on April 1 and was followed by a motion for a temporary restraining order a week later. Many felt the mural flap ended when Judge Woodcock denied in late April the plaintiffs’ motion to have the mural restored, but the case has persisted.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include three artists, an attorney and two individuals who regularly visited the Department of Labor building. They claim LePage’s administration has violated their First Amendment rights by denying access to the mural that was created by Tremont artist Judy Taylor and paid for through a $60,000 federal grant.
Attorney General William Schneider said the governor’s actions were considered “government speech,” and therefore are protected.
The original suit also blasts the governor for removing the mural without actually seeing it himself and questions the validity of the anonymous letter sent to LePage calling for the mural’s removal.
Judge Woodcock is expected to rule on the motion for summary judgment later this summer.