Charlie Buttrey

October 21, 2021

Back in February I blogged about a kerfuffle between Vermont Law School and the artist Sam Kerson who, in 1993, the school commissioned to create a mural in the school’s library. The mural, entitled “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave,” consists of two 8′ x 24′ panels, with four scenes on each panel. In Kerson’s words, the mural “celebrates the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice.”

The problem, as I pointed out in my blog, was that VLS decided that the mural’s depictions of Black Americans “strike some viewers as caricatured and offensive,” and decided to cover up the mural (there is no way to remove it, since it is painted directly onto the sheetrock with acrylic paint). Kerson responded by suing the law school, on the grounds that the Federal Visual Artists’ Rights Act protects an artist’s work from “any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation,” and, further, that the law protects works of “recognized stature” from destruction either through intent or gross negligence.

After oral arguments before the U.S. District Court (which were held at the law school), federal judge Geoffrey Crawford yesterday granted VLS’s Motion for Summary Judgment, concluding that covering up the mural did not mutilate, modify or destroy the artwork in violation of federal law.

The mural will not be moved, mutilated, modified or destroyed, but no one is ever going to see it again.

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