AUGUSTA — Legislative leaders voted Thursday to prohibit political messages from being projected onto the Maine State House in what they said was an effort to maintain the Capitol as a “neutral institution of democracy.”
Projecting images or messages onto buildings is becoming increasingly common in Maine and nationally as activists seek to make splashy, highly visible statements without causing physical damage. The tactic has been used at least three times at the Maine State House, including twice this year to display pro-gun control messages, and has been employed repeatedly on the exterior of Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., by critics of President Trump.
In March, the group LumenARRT! projected images carrying the words “PROPERTY OF THE NRA” and “SOLD TO THE NRA” on the side of the State House in response to legislative inaction on gun control as national debate flared over gun laws following a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The group returned a month later with projections supporting “red flag” legislation that allows police or courts to temporarily confiscate guns from individuals deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
And in 2011, activists projected images on the State House of an 11-panel mural about the labor movement after Gov. Paul LePage had the mural removed from the Department of Labor building.
‘Another tool’ for state police
Maine State Capitol Police have, in the past, shut down such displays on grounds that the groups lacked permits or that Maine law prohibits political signs on state property. But police officials recently asked the Legislative Council — a committee comprised of the top-ranking lawmakers — to explicitly prohibit projected displays.
“This doesn’t prohibit someone from carrying signs or even having their own tent … but they still have to get an activity permit,” said Grant Pennoyer, executive director of the Legislative Council, which oversees policy and facilities operations within the Capitol complex. “But they can’t tie anything, like signs, between trees on the State House or on the fence post. And this would give state police another tool to block people from projecting an image on the State House and surrounding buildings.”
In a 6-0 vote, council members approved the new policy prohibiting projected messages as well as proposals to change the lighting of the State House dome. Pennoyer said his office periodically receives requests to change the lighting, the most recent request tied to the 70th anniversary of the creation of the nation of Israel.
“The State House Dome lights are not currently equipped to accommodate colors or filters, but any proposal including those as simple as turning off some of the lights for a particular reason are not consistent with maintaining the neutrality of the State House and therefore must be denied,” the policy states.
A representative for the ACLU of Maine said he had not heard about the Legislative Council’s discussions and was not aware that the organization had any formal positions on the issue.
But Anita Clearfield, a member of the LumenARRT! group that projects images or messages of social change issues, called the revised policy “silly.” Her organization also was behind recent climate change-related messaging projected (with a permit) on the Portland Public Library building, as well as other messaging on racism and immigration.
“It’s free speech; you should be able to say what you want,” said Clearfield, who was not aware that the Legislative Council discussions. “It’s a public space, paid for with tax dollars. It’s our State House.”
LumenARRT! was initially told by Capitol Police to shut down its NRA projection in March because it lacked a permit required for demonstrations at the State House. But they were subsequently denied a permit for another display and told to take the issue up with the Legislative Council. Clearfield pointed out that the group stages its projections at night when few people are around and that the displays are not harming the building.
“It’s hard to understand why they are doing this, other than what we are doing must be effective,” she said.
Concrete language to deny permits
But Chief Russell Gauvin with the Bureau of Capitol Police said the policy should help.
Gauvin pointed out that it is already a criminal offense, under Maine’s election laws, to post political signs on state government property because the state does not want to be viewed as supporting one political issue over another. Under the revised State House policy, projections won’t be a criminal violation but it will give Gauvin concrete language to refer to when denying permit requests.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, successfully argued to tweak the policy by adding the phrase “without the expressed consent of the Legislative Council” to allow for some flexibility. As an example, Thibodeau pointed to past widespread use of yellow ribbons tied around trees to show support for causes, most recently for deployed military personnel.
“It’s a recognition that there may be things in our state’s future where we want to have a little bit of latitude,” Thibodeau said.
The city of Portland also has a policy prohibiting political projections on buildings without a permit, although the policy is not always enforced — or even universally supported by city leaders.
Earlier this month, an organization projected an image stating that “Roe v. Wade is more popular than Brett Kavanaugh,” referring to the controversy surrounding the Supreme Court nominee’s stance on the landmark abortion case.
While the city’s spokeswoman pointed out the display lacked a permit and broke city rules, Mayor Ethan Strimling told the CBS13 television station that “this is their right to project a message on the side of the building that’s owned by the public.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Trump International Hotel has been the site of numerous visual demonstrations projecting such messages as “Impeach Trump,” “Pay Trump bribes here” and “There is a rapist in the White House.”