AUGUSTA — How the public views art in a public space – whether they consider it to be a message from the government or the opinion of the artist – will be at issue Thursday in federal court when attorneys deliver oral arguments in the lawsuit over the removal of a mural at the Department of Labor.

Nearly a year ago, Gov. Paul LePage ordered the 11-panel, 36-foot, pro-labor mural removed from a waiting area at the department. His decision sparked outrage from artists and unions, with hundreds clogging the halls at the agency in protest and some of them filing suit after the mural was taken down and stored in a secret location.

The key question is whether the governor was exercising his right to government speech by removing the mural, attorneys for the governor say. If so, case law suggests that he has the right to take the mural down.

But Jonathan Beal, an attorney representing five Mainers who sued the governor, argues that it would send a dangerous signal to the arts community if his action is considered government speech.

Oral arguments are scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday in U.S. District Court in Bangor.

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