PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage's administration was exercising its right to "government speech" when it removed a labor history mural from the state Labor Department headquarters, the Maine attorney general said Monday.
In a document filed in U.S. District Court, Attorney General William Schneider said a lawsuit seeking to have the mural returned to its original location presents a political, not legal, issue on "where the government speaks." The prior administration was speaking when it chose to display the mural, and the current administration is speaking by having it removed, he wrote.
"Plaintiffs strongly agree with the 'speech' of a prior administration by means of the exhibition of a work of art in a particular government building, and disagree with the 'speech' of the present administration by not exhibiting that work of art at that particular government building," he wrote in an objection to a motion seeking a temporary restraining order aimed at returning the mural to the Labor Department.
LePage caused an uproar last month by ordering the removal of the 11-panel mural depicting scenes from Maine's labor history. He also ordered that departmental conference rooms that carry the names of labor organizers be renamed for mountains, counties or something else perceived as neutral. The rooms have yet to be renamed.
The mural was installed in 2008 when John Baldacci was governor. LePage, who became governor in January, said it's biased in favor of organized labor at the expense of business interests.
The mural's removal has sparked opposition rallies and a federal lawsuit that was filed on behalf of three artists, an organized labor representative, a workplace safety official and an attorney. The lawsuit seeks to confirm the mural's current location, ensure that it's adequately preserved and ultimately restore it to the Department of Labor's lobby in Augusta.
Jeffrey Young, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, said when government bans speech — in this case by removing a mural — because of its viewpoint, then the government speech doctrine doesn't apply.
"The government speech doctrine is a narrow exception to the First Amendment free speech clause and we don't think this fits the exception because the governor's decision to remove the mural was based on his disagreement with its content," Young said. "If the governor had said, 'I don't like this mural because it's all black and gray and I'd like to see pretty reds and greens in it,' he could probably do it. But that's not what he said."