Federal judge says LePage’s decision to remove mural was government speech

Courtesy of Judy Taylor Fine Art

Panel 8 (center) of the controversial labor mural removed by Gov. LePage shows Francis Perkins, President Franklin Roosevelt's labor secretary and an untiring labor activist. Some Republicans claimed that a face in that panel bears a striking resemblance to former Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman.

BANGOR, Maine — A federal judge on Friday ruled in favor of Gov. Paul LePage in a lawsuit concerning the governor’s controversial removal of a Department of Labor mural, saying LePage’s action amounted to “government speech.”

In a 90-page opinion, U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. granted motions for summary judgment in favor of LePage and members of his administration. The judge also dismissed two counts of an amended complaint filed by the plaintiffs.

The decision essentially denied a trial of the lawsuit seeking to compel LePage to restore the mural to the walls of the Department of Labor building in Augusta.

“The prospect of [hauling] a sitting governor into federal court to be cross-examined under oath as to why he made a political decision may momentarily cheer the partisan,” Woodcock wrote. “But the long-term implications of federal court intervention in state politics are sobering.”

The judge said that because Maine owns the mural, it is free to do what it wants with the artwork.

“The record establishes that the idea for the commissioning of the mural began with the state of Maine, that Maine established its theme, that Maine commissioned its creation, that Maine chose the artist, that Maine paid for the mural, that Maine owns the mural, that Maine displays [or not] the mural on its own property, and that Maine even has the right to destroy it,” Woodcock wrote.

The judge said the state of Maine engaged in “government speech” when it commissioned and displayed the mural.

“It follows that Gov. LePage also engaged in government speech when he removed the mural,” Woodcock wrote. “The governor’s message — whether verbal or in the form of the expressive act of removal — is government speech.”

“Regardless of Judge Woodcock’s opinion, while we may not have yet prevailed in the court of law, we already have prevailed in the court of public opinion,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jeffrey Neil Young, said in a statement. “Mainers recognize what the court has failed to appreciate, that the removal of the mural is nothing less than government censorship of artistic speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

Young added that the plaintiffs were still studying the opinion and would decide in the near future whether to appeal the ruling to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

“We’ve always believed that this was a frivolous, politically motivated lawsuit,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. She said it would be “stunning” if government officials were barred from making decisions about what artwork can hang in public buildings.

Brooksville artist Robert Shetterly, one of three Maine artists named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, expressed disappointment at Woodcock’s ruling.

“I have found Judge Woodcock to be an astute and thoughtful person,” Shetterly said Friday in a telephone interview. “However, I think he’s wrong about this being a matter of government speech. His decision is basically timid. I think it’s a sad decision.”

Shetterly, who travels to classrooms throughout Maine and across the country to speak about his “Americans Who Tell The Truth” series of portraits, said the ruling wasn’t a total surprise to him since Woodcock earlier had expressed reluctance to intervene in the matter. Shetterly said Woodcock had earlier suggested the “best remedy was the ballot” instead of a court ruling.

“The whole doctrine of government speech is a fallacious one,” he said. “This is just honest history, pure and simple. No one can argue with the depiction of Maine’s labor history that’s in the mural.”

BDN staffer William P. Davis contributed to this report.

What do you think of this story?

Login to post comments

In order to make comments, you must create a subscription.

In order to comment on SunJournal.com, you must hold a valid subscription allowing access to this website. You must use your real name and include the town in which you live in your SunJournal.com profile. To subscribe or link your existing subscription click here.

Login or create an account here.

Our policy prohibits comments that are:

  • Defamatory, abusive, obscene, racist, or otherwise hateful
  • Excessively foul and/or vulgar
  • Inappropriately sexual
  • Baseless personal attacks or otherwise threatening
  • Contain illegal material, or material that infringes on the rights of others
  • Commercial postings attempting to sell a product/item
If you violate this policy, your comment will be removed and your account may be banned from posting comments.



Bob Woodbury's picture

I don't suppose...

...the citizen speech on this subject has any force of law.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Its not the mural

I don't feel this really has anything to do with what hangs on the wall at the Dept. of Labor.
People today don't know what the unions did. To young people its just a word, something they had many years ago.
I'll be the first to admit, the unions weren't perfect. Far from it. I was twenty one years old when I was FORCED to join the Teamsters in Boston. I still have my card in my wallet. I can't speak for every company, but I can speak of one, with close ties to Auburn.
All our factories were unionized. jobs were safe. WRONG...
Some new executive, obviously trying to make points, single hand-idly figured out how to break the union and save the company tons of money. Shut most of the domestic factories, and move to Haiti. There they could work the people twelve hour days for less than a dollar a day.
That was back in the seventies.
That room in Augusta isn't there to hang a mural, Its there to hopefully prevent travesties like the one I just described from happening. Unfortunately its to late. More and more companies are coming up with ways to make more money with less workforce. The word Union is gone. It has been replaced with new politically correct terms such as down sizing and out sourcing.
The bottom line is that if you have been with a company thirty years, and expect to retire in a couple of years. Don't count on it. They'll down size you, hire a twenty five year old. They will change the new guys job description, saying your old job has been eliminated. They have effectively fired you, saved having to pay a retirement pension,and pay the new guy a fraction of what you were making. And its all totally legal. Is it any wonder no one can find work?

Brian Allen Small's picture

This HAS Been A Great Few Weeks!

First no Baldacci then Ole Dale gets gone Now this good news and yet the crybabies continue to whine!!

Jeff Johnson's picture

The judge made the correct

The judge made the correct decision soley based on the belief that the federal court shouldn't get involved in state politics. Since when is it the federal govenment's job to decide the petty bickerings of what public art should be shown where?

Some artists are walking away with their feelings hurt... 99% of the Maine public are saying, "Drop this stupid subject, and fix DHHS!" They could care less if it were a mural of Maine Labor, or a picture of Percival Baxter peeing off Pamola Peak.

Jeff Johnson's picture

63.267% of all statistics are

63.267% of all statistics are made up right on the spot.

I'd absolutely love to see the polling behind that comment. I seriously doubt that 38 percent of Mainers even know what the debate is about.

Jeff Johnson's picture


A quick poll from my barstool at a local watering hole:

"What do you think of Judge Woodcock's decision in the removal of the picture from the state house?"

I got:

5 "Who's Judge Woodcock"
3 "What picture are you talking about"
4 "Who Cares!"
and an overwhelming majority of "STFU, Johnson!"


Jeff Johnson's picture

Do you really, truly care

Do you really, truly care what publicly owned picture hangs on that spot? Or are you just truly upset that a federal judge said, "This isn't worth the paper it's written on!"?

Jeff Johnson's picture

So, you're saying that you

So, you're saying that you want your tax dollars spent on lawyers for this? This is petty political bickering... I can think of nothing that's a bigger waste of time and money. (unless I were the lawyer involved.)

The judge was justified in saying, "Get out of my courtroom, you boobs."

Ann Power's picture

downward spiral continues

I am so proud to call Maine home

Mike Lachance's picture

The legal Judgement:

“The record establishes that the idea for the commissioning of the mural began with the state of Maine, that Maine established its theme, that Maine commissioned its creation, that Maine chose the artist, that Maine paid for the mural, that Maine owns the mural, that Maine displays [or not] the mural on its own property, and that Maine even has the right to destroy it,”



Stay informed — Get the news delivered for free in your inbox.

I'm interested in ...