December 2, 2012

OUR OPINION: Mural, mural on the wall, let the voters make the call

Though those who are critical of Gov. Paul LePage's decision in 2011 to remove a specially commissioned mural from an anteroom at the offices of the Maine Department of Labor don't agree, the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston made the legally correct decision in saying the governor had the right to do what he did.

The critics, however, can certainly agree with Chief Judge Sandra Lynch's added comment that the place to render an effective protest was at the ballot box.

The 11-panel, 7-foot-tall mural, which portrayed "the history of labor" in Maine and across the nation, was commissioned by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and cost $60,000.

LePage decided to remove the mural because it was a work of "partisan propaganda." Critics argued that the state had to leave the mural in place because it was protected by the freedom of speech guarantees contained in the First Amendment. The state, however, argued that the mural was its property and could be taken down at will.

The state's view was affirmed at the U.S. District Court level, and then was appealed by the plaintiffs. The appeals court's ruling adopted a slightly different rationale in concluding the mural represented "government speech," a special category of statement that was the sponsoring government's to make or withdraw at its discretion.

That decision is correct, because otherwise any work of art commissioned by government could never be altered or replaced.

Still, as critics noted, the outcome of November's voting, which returned control of both houses of the Maine Legislature to Democrats, can be interpreted easily as at least partially resulting from voters' opinions about the actions of the Republican governor as well.

And as the court said, if enough people want the mural restored, they have to wait only two more years to accomplish that.

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