Maine attorney general: Labor mural removal is ‘government speech’
Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s was exercising his right to “government speech” when he ordered a mural removed from the Maine Labor Department headquarters, state Attorney General William Schneider said Monday.
LePage ordered a 36-foot mural depicting the history of labor movements in Maine to be removed from the state’s Department of Labor building in late March to send a “message” to business that Maine is not a labor-run state.
He’s also ordered a number of the Department of Labor’s conference room names changed, apparently because they are named after heroes to the labor movement, like Caesar Chavez and Frances Perkins, America’s first female labor secretary.
“I’m trying to send a message to everyone in the state that the state of Maine looks at employees and employers equally, neutrally and on balance,” he reportedly said.
LePage added that the move comes after “several” complaints, including an anonymous fax that compared a depiction of U.S. history to North Korean propaganda.
The governor’s decision to have the mural removed came amid a pitched political fight in states across the nation, where Republican governors launched an assault on organized labor, most notably in Wisconsin.
In response to a federal lawsuit seeking to have the mural returned to the Maine Labor Department headquarters, Attorney General Schneider said the the prior governor’s administration was speaking when it chose to commission the mural and LePage’s current administration is engaged in “government speech” by having it removed.
According to the highly controversial government speech doctrine, the government does not need to maintain viewpoint neutrality in its own speech.
“The government speech doctrine is a narrow exception to the First Amendment free speech clause and we don’t think this fits the exception because the governor’s decision to remove the mural was based on his disagreement with its content,” Jeffrey Young, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, told The Associated Press. “If the governor had said, ‘I don’t like this mural because it’s all black and gray and I’d like to see pretty reds and greens in it,’ he could probably do it. But that’s not what he said.”
The mural was initially paid for by a federal grant, which fulfilled 63 percent of the $60,000 historical art project.
If the state decides against putting it back up, they’ll be forced to repay 63 percent of the mural’s fair market value, which has likely gone up since it became a centerpiece in Republicans’ battle against workers.
Maine is also in the midst of a pitched battle over child labor laws. Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill through the Maine Legislature that would rollback labor laws enacted by the state in 1991.
The bill, LD 1346, establishes a “training wage” for employees under 20 years of age at $5.25 per hour for their first 180 days of employment and increases the amount of hours minors can legally work. The proposed “training wage” is over two dollars less than the state’s current minimum wage.
The bill also would eliminate the maximum hours a minor over 16 can work during school days and allow minors to work over 50 hours a week when school is not in session.
Another bill, LD 516, is headed to the Senate floor for a vote after being passed along party lines by a Senate committee, with Democrats voting against the measure. It would allow minors 16 years and older to work up to six hours a day and until 11pm on a school night.
“It’s just too perfect after the flap with the mural,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said. “First, the governor tries to whitewash history and now this bill is trying to erase the progress of child labor laws itself.”
In his inaugural speech, LePage promised to overturn what he called government’s “adversarial” relationship with business. In a January interview with Fox Business, LePage said that he wanted to eliminate regulations and “reduce the tax base” in Maine.
With additional reporting by Stephen C. Webster.