Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Labor Mural Wants to Be Free

3 of 11 panels from the mural: The 1937 Strike Scenes from an unsuccessful strike attempt to create better conditions for women workers. Frances Perkins FDR's  Labor Secretary, and untiring labor activist, a Maine Labor icon. Rosie the Riveter Maine's version of WWII women workers participated as ship-builders.
Control of information is where the battle for hearts and minds is being waged in the 21st century. That's why Bradley Manning is being tortured for allegedly leaking the Collateral Murder video and other raw truths about military occupation. That's why Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is a wanted man for distributing the information. And that's why Maine's governor took down the mural depicting labor history created by Judy Taylor for the lobby of the Department of Labor.

The Maine labor mural had a hearing in Federal District Court in Bangor today on a charge that the governor violated citizens' First Amendment right of access to the mural by removing it.

Appropriately enough, the court proceedings were open to the public, and we were treated to an entertaining show. Judge Woodcock was clearly enjoying himself, and he hinted broadly that it would not have been unwelcome if either the plaintiffs or the defendant had filed for discovery in order to produce the mural in the courtroom. The judge rightly noted that few present had actually ever seen it, and that they are unlikely to now that it is believed to be stored “in a broom closet.”

The case seems to hinge on whether or not the mural's removal can be considered “government speech” which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld 1st amendment rights for; as a legal concept, the judge noted, government speech is pretty freshly minted. Would a person viewing the mural reasonably think that it contained a message from his or her government? Or just a personal vision expressed by the artist? He speculated that portraits of the founders of giant paper companies and ship builders may be planned to replace the mural, according to the governor.

The plaintiffs argue it is the latter, while the state argued through its lawyers that it had spoken (perhaps less than eloquently) when the mural was removed last month under cover of darkness.

Despite expressing the reluctance of federal courts to interfere in state business, the judge had prepared  some interesting questions for both sides. To the plaintiffs: Doesn't each successive administration remove art from the walls of public buildings, and put up other art, and doesn't this constitute a benefit of democratic governance, wherein the people are supposed to have spoken at the ballot box that brought the administration to office?

Counsel for the plaintiffs: If the art had been removed because the color scheme was displeasing, yes. If it is removed because the content is deemed unwelcome – as the governor clearly stated in the verbal pissing match that led up to the mural's removal – then that is a violation of the right, not just to speak, but to listen.

Judge Woodcock then asked counsel for the defendant: Suppose the governor were to enter the state library, find a number of books there on the history of labor objectionable, and burn them? Would that be permissible?

In a room full of oldsters, it's pretty clear what that hypothetical referred to.

The judge promised to render a decision quickly, but he's known for writing long opinions – so don't hold your breath. Other avenues remain, including a pending demand from the U.S. Dept. of Labor for a refund of its $60k contribution via grant whose terms have now been violated; the fact that the state museum actually has responsibility for the art in state buildings; and the breach of contract with the artist, who is entitled to be consulted in the event of her work's removal, and wasn't.

At a rally that followed the hearing, in Peirce Park under a monumental statue of lumberjacks at work, artist Nathasha Mayers spoke dressed as a truck with Maine open for  business  exploitation painted on the side. Artist Rob Shetterly said the mural deserved to be seen because it showed the truth  about labor history in Maine. And several speakers represented labor, none more eloquently than retired RN Kathy Day. The nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center have been struggling for a contract that guarantees adequate staffing levels, and Kathy clearly explained how society as a whole often benefits from workers' struggles.
Kathy Day, Food AND Medicine, Bangor, April 19, 2011
Not enough nurses to provide adequate care? Not enough air traffic controllers to spell each other through the wee hours? Weak protection for child laborers? Eventually, somebody's going to get hurt.

1 comment:


Thanks for the account of the court hearing. Lisa. Well written.