The Universal Notebook: Fighting off mural fatigue

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As I write it is Day 42 of the Labor Mural Hostage Vigil.

Gov. Paul LePage still has the mural depicting Maine’s labor history hidden away in a closet at the Department of Labor. Yes, I am getting a little tired of the whole darn issue. And if I’m suffering mural fatigue, I’m sure you were sick of it days or weeks ago. So let me explain why it’s still important.

In a recent public opinion poll, 65.1 percent of respondents said they disapproved of LePage’s decision to remove the mural. Only 20.9 percent approved. The 9.7 percent who strongly approved represent the hardcore conservative base that is currently trying to dictate public policy to the rest of us in normally moderate Maine. So, yes, we have to care about a governor’s order to take down a mural he does not like because it smacks both of censorship and dictatorship.

Not only does the labor history mural represent the history of the exploitation of Maine workers, its forced removal now embodies the conservative Republican antipathy toward working people. These are the same people who, during the GOP state convention, removed pro-labor materials from a King Middle School classroom in Portland; the same people bent on blaming current economic woes not on the sins of Bush, but on working people, state employees, organized labor, teachers, and nurses – in short, anyone they might be able exploit were it not for the power of collective bargaining.

Don’t be fooled. Unless you’re a self-employed millionaire, this labor mural is your issue.

Some folks seem to think that in denying a request for a temporary restraining order to put the mural back, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock put an end to the matter. He did not. He simply allowed the mural to stay in storage while the lawsuit continues.

Woodcock did, however, accept the state’s argument that ordering the mural taken down was a legitimate exercise of “government speech” on the part of Gov. LePage. I respectfully disagree, both with the legal concept and with its application in this case. Suppression of free speech is only legitimate “government speech” in an Orwellian state.

Woodcock held that a reasonable person would conclude that the labor history mural was official government speech and not the free speech of the artist. But if that is so, a reasonable person would also have to conclude that the fall foliage mural in the lobby of the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building, where Woodcock holds court, is also government speech. I believe a reasonable person would have no problem concluding that it is artist Yvonne Jacquette’s “speech,” not the government’s, despite the fact that the General Services Administration commissioned and paid for it.

Judy Taylor, the artist who painted the Maine labor history mural, is just less well known than Yvonne Jacquette, and, thus far, has stayed aloof from the fray, refusing to assert her own rights. It’s time she joined the fight. Because if government speech trumps individual free speech, we are all in trouble. You’d think Libertarians might be able to grasp that concept.

Beyond the court of public opinion, where LePage has already lost the mural case, and court of law, where he has won a temporary stay, the U.S. Department of Labor, which gave Maine most of the $60,000 used to commission the mural, has served notice that Maine must either put the mural back or pay it back. LePage has, thus far, simply ignored the feds.

A group of misguided Republicans in Aroostook County announced an effort to raise $60,000 to enable LePage to pay the feds back, but in the meantime, LePage’s then-commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, Philip Congdon, went to the County, told them to “get off the reservation,” and, in what may be the only positive thing LePage has done so far, got fired.

If Paul LePage is as tired of the mural issue as some folks are, there is a very simple solution. He just needs to cite the U.S. Department of Labor demand, say he doesn’t like it, but he has no choice, and then order the mural put back so he can start trying to actually accomplish something.

I have tried to communicate this exit strategy to LePage and a member of his staff, but it’s hard to know what gets into the governor’s bunker these days.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.