(CN) - Maine Gov. Paul LePage did not violate the First Amendment when he removed a mural depicting the history of the labor movement in the state from the walls of the Department of Labor, the 1st Circuit held.
The suit was brought by five Maine residents who, according to the opinion, claim that they "had viewed the mural and planned to view it again at the MDOL offices," and that the mural's removal "was impermissibly content- and viewpoint- based."
They contended that because LePage removed the mural without conducting a hearing in March, 2011, shortly after taking office, he violated their First Amendment rights.
The mural by Judy Taylor was installed in a small public waiting room in the Department of Labor in August 2008. According to the opinion, the 7-foot tall mural's panels included depictions of labor strikes, child laborers and female workers during World War II.
In February, 2011 the opinion states that "the Office of the Governor received an anonymous letter complaining that the mural was 'propaganda' meant to further the union movement and asking Governor LePage to take the mural down."
The governor's press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, later stated that multiple business officials had also complained that displaying the mural in the DOL offices where disputes between employees and employers are arbitrated demonstrated a lack of neutrality.
In March, the MDOL Commissioner sent an email informing the staff that the mural would be taken down, stating "If either of our two constituencies perceives that they are not welcome in our administration building and this translates to a belief that their needs will not be heard or met by this department, then it presents a barrier to achieving our mission."
The administration also removed a framed pamphlet from the 19th century that urged employers to oppose a child labor bill that was displayed alongside the mural.
LePage then announced the mural would be "prominently displayed in Portland City Hall, the site of Maine's first State House."
However, it has yet to be installed at the new location. LePage claimed this was because he discovered that Taylor's $60,000 fee came out of the unemployment insurance fund, which he believed was inappropriate. In a 2011 interview he stated, "They robbed that account to build the mural. And until they pay for it, it stays hidden."
In an opinion written by Judge John A. Woodcock, the three-judge panel unanimously upheld the lower court's finding for the defendants.
Woodcock wrote that despite the fact the mural has not been reinstalled there is no reason to think won't be, adding that the government can legally "choose to disassociate itself from an endorsement implicit from the setting for the mural, which it reasonably understood as interfering with the message of neutrality the administration wishes to portray" and that the governor planned to redisplay it in public view at a more neutral locale.
He added that legally "it is well established, in a number of contexts, that maintaining the appearance of neutrality is a sufficient government justification."
The plaintiffs' arguments that this decision violated their First Amendment rights, "fail to capture myriad relevant factors under First Amendment law," according to Woodcock. It is not, he contends, "a case in which the government seeks to regulate the speech of private parties," but instead "a case about private citizens attempting to compel a governor to keep in place a mural, owned by the state, in a particular location."
He concludes that while many may disagree with Governor LePage, the voting booth, not the courtroom, is the place to exercise that grievance. "Governors and administrations areultimately accountable to the electorate through the political process, which is the mechanism to test disagreements."
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