The Universal Notebook: Reign of error in LePage's state of me

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Of all the things there are to be upset about when it comes to Gov. Paul LePage’s notorious order removing the Maine labor history mural from the Department of Labor, the thing that bothers me most is the state’s sick argument that taking down the mural is an act of constitutionally protected “government speech.”

“The State owns the art, and can express its views through that art as it sees fit – by hanging in a government build or not,” said the attorney general’s office in its objection to the motion for a temporary restraining order.

The U.S. District Court in Bangor will decide whether this argument holds legal water, but what’s sick about it is the implication that Gov. Paul LePage is the state.

I was talking with a conservative friend the other day (and, yes, I do have some) and he insisted that the governor has every right to decide what art hangs where in any state building.

I don’t buy that.

LePage can decorate his office or the Blaine House however he sees fit, but, government speech be damned, there is a process by which the state acquires art and by which it can dispose of it. It is a public process, not a matter of personal whim.

Now, you may not think this is a big deal, but, ladies and gentlemen, if the governor can remove any work of art he doesn’t like from public view, does he also have the power to remove any book he doesn’t like from the state library? Based on the state’s argument, we have to presume he does:

“The present administration has now decided to remove that artwork because it was not satisfied that the message conveyed by the work at that location was appropriate.”

So if Paul LePage decides a book does not present a balanced view of, let’s say labor history or environmental conservation, it is apparently a matter of government free speech if he decides it might offend the business community and orders it out of the library. This argument, advanced by attorneys we hope actually know better and are working under duress, is a defense of despotism. The governor is the state and it’s OK for the state to censor anything it finds inappropriate.

Do we really live in a state where an elected public servant has the power to rule by fiat? I sure hope not.

LePage’s argument for removing the mural is that it is inappropriate in the waiting room of the Department of Labor. Say what? The Department of Labor, Your Highness, exists to keep businesses from making a buck by exploiting the health, safety and economic and human rights of workers. At a Portland Museum of Art forum on the mural controversy, a conservative radio talk show host echoed your argument and also complained that the workers in the murals looked oppressed.

Earth to Ray Richardson: that’s because they were oppressed.

In keeping with its “l’etat c’est LePage” defense, the AG’s office also argues that, “As members of the general public, (the plaintiffs) have no standing to inspect the government-owned mural.”

Do you hear that, tea baggers? The general public has no standing when it comes to public art? You nominally anti-authoritarian, Constitution-waving, freedom-loving radicals saddled us with Paul LePage. Now you’re defending his government by dictatorship.

I could get really upset about King Paul’s reign of error except for a dirty little secret Democrats don’t want you to know. He’s been on the throne 100 days now and, other than making trouble, he hasn’t accomplished a blessed thing – zilch, zero, diddlysquat, nada.

Keep up the good work, Sire.

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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.

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