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Is Maine Labor Mural Government Speech or Artist's Speech?

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on July 24, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In April, we brought you the news that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit involving a mural in Maine filed a notice of appeal with the First Circuit Court of Appeals. Now, the case has officially been appealed.

Here's the backstory: In March 2011, Maine's Governor Paul LePage had the controversial mural removed from the waiting area of the Department of Labor in Augusta, Maine. The mural depicted the history of Maine's labor, including visual depictions of a strike.

Governor LePage claimed to be well within his rights to remove the mural, citing protected government speech. He claimed that his objection was not a content-based one but rather, the fact that $60,000 in government funds were used to erect the mural, back in the days of Governor John Baldacci.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the fact that 11-panel, 7-foot tall mural appeared to favor organized labor over corporations.

The U.S. District Court already ruled that the mural was protected government speech. Now, a group consisting of two union officials and three artists are appealing the decision.

The issues in the case will hinge on whether the mural is protected government speech or protected free speech of the artist.

Protected government speech was addressed in the 1991 U.S. Supreme Court’s case Rust v. Sullivan. There, the government authorized subsidies to family planning clinics with a caveat that none of these clinics could discuss abortion as a family planning method. The question in the case involved whether such a restriction violated the First Amendment.

The Rust case established the idea that the government can decide to spend money in favor of some programs and refuse to spend on other programs.

In the current case, however, the District Court applied Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum, where the Supreme Court addressed the criteria which would make a monument “government speech,” in which case, the government would have the right to remove it. These criteria include public financing and the location of the display.

This case will be one to watch in the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

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