The following is a statement from ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis in response to numerous inquiries about Chesterfield County, Virginia, school teacher Stephen Murmer. Mr. Murmer was suspended from his job last week after students found online a video of him demonstrating a technique he uses when producing paintings in his private time.Last Friday, the ACLU of Virginia learned that Stephen Murmer, an art teacher in Chesterfield County Public Schools had been suspended from his job for using his buttocks to create floral and abstract paintings. The ACLU believes that the First Amendment protects Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Using the pseudonym Stan Murmur, Mr. Murmer uses parts of his body, painted and pressed on canvass, 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.
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 should protect his right to engage in expressive activities on his own time.
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 Mr. Murmer’s paintings since at least 2004, but suspended him only after students discovered, and began talking about, the 2003 video. When students learned of the suspension, some called a local television station asking that it report on the unfair treatment of Mr. Murmer. That report led to numerous other media reports on Mr. Murmer’s suspension.
We feel that school officials are overreacting, perhaps even fanning the flames of this matter. 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.
Although the ACLU of Virginia does not officially represent Mr. Murmer, we are concerned about the constitutional issues involved in this controversy.
Contact: Kent Willis (w) 804/644-8022