Teacher fired for buttocks art sues

/ Source: The Associated Press

A high school art teacher fired after officials learned he moonlighted by creating paintings using his bare buttocks and other body parts sued his former employers on Thursday.

Stephen Murmer was fired in January after Chesterfield County Public Schools officials saw a YouTube video of Murmer wearing a swim thong and a Groucho Marx mask, demonstrating how he applies paint to his backside, then presses it onto a canvas.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond by the American Civil Liberties Union, said Murmer's firing violates his First Amendment rights. It also alleges that after he was suspended from teaching in December, school officials ordered him not to discuss his suspension even as they commented on it in news interviews.

The complaint seeks unspecified damages and legal fees from the county school board, a school district personnel official and the principal at Monacan High School, where he taught.

School officials had not seen the lawsuit early Thursday afternoon and do not comment on litigation, said spokeswoman Debra Marlow.

Murmer said in a telephone interview from Alabama, where he now lives, that the school district deprived him not only of his right to free expression but his rights to due process.

"This lawsuit is about a corrupt little county in Virginia and making sure they can't do this to anyone else ever again," he said.

Murmer paints under the pseudonym Stan Murmur, and displays some of his work on his Web site, http://www.buttprintart.com.

One acrylic-on-canvas work titled "Tulip Butts" shows the red imprint of a backside representing the open petals of a tulip with an imprint between them from an adjacent body part that represents a flower's stamen.

The lawsuit said Murmer's paintings sell in a range from $600 to $4,800, and that he uses his own body parts and those of models to "brush" or "stamp" images onto canvas.

Rebecca K. Glenberg, an ACLU lawyer who is one of Murmer's attorneys, said the school board fired Murmer for art created on his own time that he "scrupulously kept private from his students." He adopted the pen name to ensure that his students didn't discover his private work by using Internet search engines such as Google or Yahoo, she said. Murmer received a teacher of the year award in 2002, according to the lawsuit.

"In this case, we have someone who engaged in legitimate artistic expression protected by the First Amendment and furthermore did everything in his power to keep his art work separate from his teaching," Glenberg said. "He used a different name, he didn't discuss his art in class, and he did not do or say anything improper in school or a class environment."

In October 2003, Murmer appeared on a short-lived cable television program, "Unscrewed with Martin Sargent." He was introduced under his pseudonym and wore the mask and a white towel wrapped turban-style on his head to conceal his identity. After an interview, he removed a white bathrobe and demonstrated his painting technique.

The video was posted online, and school officials first saw it in 2004, according to the complaint. School officials discussed it with Murmer, he agreed to remove photos of three paintings from his Web site, and he was told there would be no further action, the complaint contends.

But on Dec. 8, 2006, according to the lawsuit, school officials summoned him from his classroom, told him the video created so much discussion among Monacan students that it was disruptive, and suspended him. A month later, the school board fired him.