December 14, 2006

High School Art Teacher Suspended Over Unique Paintings

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

RICHMOND, VA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today called the widely publicized suspension of an art teacher in Chesterfield County a real-life constitutional lesson for students. Chesterfield officials suspended Stephen Murmer from his job as a public school art teacher because of the unique artwork he creates in his personal time, namely floral and abstract paintings produced by using his buttocks. The ACLU said that the First Amendment protects Murmer's right to produce and sell his paintings, which he does entirely outside of school, on his own time, and at his own expense.

Although Chesterfield school administrators have apparently been aware for some time of Murmer's paintings - and the technique he uses to produce them - he was not suspended until last Friday when a three-year-old video of him demonstrating his technique was found online by students.  In the video, Murmer disguises his face, but otherwise wears only a thong while using his buttocks to transfer paint to a partially completed canvas.

"It is our understanding that Mr. Murmer is an excellent, well-respected art teacher who takes his job very seriously.  But he is also serious about the art he produces separate from his teaching duties, and the ACLU believes the First Amendment protects his right to engage in expressive activities on his own time," said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia.   

Using the pseudonym Stan Murmur, the art teacher uses parts of his body, painted and pressed on canvas, to recreate flowers, butterflies, and other objects from nature. Some of his paintings are nonrepresentational abstracts that also rely on paint transferred from body parts for their shape and texture.  His paintings sell in a range from $400 to $900.

Murmer was told last Friday that he was being suspended with pay while school officials conduct an investigation.  The school has apparently been aware of Murmer's paintings since at least 2004, but suspended him only after students discovered, and began talking about, the 2003 video found on YouTube.com. When students learned of the suspension, some called a local television station asking that it report on the unfair treatment of their teacher. The television report has since led to countless other media reports on Murmer's suspension.

Murmer contacted the ACLU for advice, but the civil liberties group does not officially represent him in any current legal action.

"We feel that school officials are overreacting, perhaps even fanning the flames of this matter," said Willis.  "If Mr. Murmer had not been suspended, the resurfacing of this old video would have probably just created a two or three day buzz before dying out altogether."

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