A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Vermont Law School has the right to permanently conceal a mural that depicts Black people in a manner that many members of the law school community consider racist.
The artist, Sam Kerson, sued VLS in December 2020 over its plan to hide his mural behind acoustic panels, claiming that doing so would violate his rights under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, a 1990 law that protects an artist's work from "intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification."
The work in question, titled "The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave," has occupied a wall in the Chase Community Center, on the school's Royalton campus, since 1993. For nearly a decade, the mural has drawn criticism from students and faculty, who say that Kerson's cartoonish portrayal of enslaved Black people perpetuates offensive stereotypes.
In July 2020, Thomas McHenry, then-president and dean of VLS, announced that the mural would be painted over, to which Kerson objected. Administrators offered him the option of removing the mural, but contractors determined that the work would have to be cut in pieces, effectively destroying it. Finally, VLS administrators proposed covering the mural permanently with acoustic panels, which would not directly touch the artwork.
In supporting VLS' motion for summary judgement, U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford contended that installing the panels in front of the mural would not constitute mutilation or distortion of Kerson's work.
"The murals will have the same status as a portrait or bust that is removed from public exhibition and placed in storage," Crawford wrote in his ruling. "Their concealment violates neither the right of attribution — because there is no confusion about who painted the murals — nor the right of integrity, as they will not be seen in a manner different from that created by the artist."
Justin Barnard, the attorney for VLS, told Seven Days he was pleased with the court's decision.
"The school’s mission is to educate law students in a diverse and inclusive community, and it became clear over recent years that the mural — which many feel depicts Black bodies in a caricatured, stereotyped manner — was inconsistent with that mission and had become a source of discord," Barnard wrote in an email. "We believe the Court rightly decided that the law does not compel a private institution to keep such a work of art on display."
Kerson's lawyer, Steven Hyman, said that his client intends to appeal.
"The Law School’s unyielding intent to entomb these murals — acknowledged to be of recognized stature — behind a wall so that they can never be viewed again is clearly both an affront to Mr. Kerson’s honor and reputation, and to the values intended to be preserved by the Visual Artists Rights Act," Hyman told Seven Days in a written statement.