First Circuit Hears Maine Labor Mural Arguments - U.S. First Circuit
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First Circuit Hears Maine Labor Mural Arguments

In 2008, then-Maine Governor John Baldacci commissioned a mural for the waiting area of the Department of Labor in Augusta, using $60,000 in state funds. The mural was meant to convey the value of the labor force and the history of Maine’s labor, including depiction of a shoe-worker strike, child laborers and Rosie the Riveter. In 2011, current Maine Governor Paul LePage created an uproar when he ordered the 11-panel, 7-foot-tall mural removed because he considered it biased in favor of organized labor over business interests.

That uproar eventually led to a federal lawsuit. This year, a district court ruled that the mural was government speech and Gov. LePage was allowed to remove it. A group consisting of two union officials and three artists are appealing the decision. Monday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the matter.

The appellate court’s decision will hinge on whether the mural is government speech or the artists’ free speech. The First Circuit will consider two applicable Supreme Court rulings on government speech: Rust v. Sullivan and Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum.

The better-known Supreme Court ruling on protected government speech is Rust v. Sullivan. In that case, the government authorized subsidies to family planning clinics with a caveat that the clinics couldn’t 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 Maine labor mural lawsuit, the district court applied the more recent Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum, in which the Supreme Court addressed the criteria which would make a monument “government speech” — like public financing and the location of the display — and the government’s right to restrict government speech. Public parks and government buildings have been traditional forums for displays representing government viewpoint.

Does the First Amendment permit officials to remove “speech” from government buildings just because they disagree with the message? While the First Circuit deliberates, we want to know how you feel about this case. Hit us up with your thoughts Google+ or on Facebook.

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