PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine Gov. Paul LePage was within his rights when he ordered the removal of a mural depicting the history of the labor movement from a state office building, a federal judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock dismissed a lawsuit aimed at restoring the labor mural to its original location in the lobby of the Department of Labor building. The decision created a public uproar that proved to be a major distraction in the early days of LePage’s administration.
The lawsuit contended the Republican governor violated the U.S. Constitution as well as the contract with the artist.
But the judge agreed with the LePage administration’s claim that the governor is entitled to engage in “government speech,” a doctrine that says the government can express itself.
“Having concluded that the state of Maine engaged in government speech when it commissioned and displayed the labor mural, it follows that Governor LePage also engaged in government speech when he removed the mural. The governor’s message — whether verbal or in the form of the expressive act of removal — is government speech,” Woodcock wrote.
The governor was in Jamaica on vacation on Friday and unavailable for comment, but spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett applauded the ruling.
“We’ve always believed this was a frivolous, politically motivated lawsuit,” she said. “It would be stunning if government officials were to be barred from making different artistic choices than their predecessors.”
The 11-panel mural was created by artist Judy Taylor, who won a competition commissioned by the Maine Arts Commission. The piece depicts scenes of child laborers, a 1937 shoe factory strike in Lewiston and Auburn, and a “Rosie the Riveter” image at Bath Iron Works during World War II, among others.
The mural was unveiled in August 2008 and removed shortly after LePage took office in 2011. He said it presented a one-sided view of history.
The decision ignited a firestorm of criticism, in addition to the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of three artists, a workplace safety official, an organized labor representative and an attorney.
There was no immediate word on whether there would be an appeal of the judge’s summary judgment. The judge’s decision left open the door for a separate lawsuit in state court.
Associated Press writer Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.
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