Published January 10, 2007
RICHMOND, Va. – A high school art teacher who sparked controversy when his off-hours work as a so-called "butt-printing artist" became known has been fired.
The Chesterfield County School Board, in a unanimous voice vote, decided to terminate Stephen Murmer at a meeting Tuesday night, spokeswoman Debra Marlow said.
The vote came during a nearly three-hour meeting during which the board heard Chesterfield superintendent Marcus J. Newsome's recommendation that Murmer be fired during a portion of the meeting closed to the public. Murmer and his lawyer, Jason Anthony, also had an opportunity to present their case in closed session, she said.
The voice vote came after the meeting was opened to the public.
In its decision, the board reasoned that students have a right to receive their education in a positive learning environment free from distractions and disruptions, Marlow said. The decision also is in keeping with court rulings that hold that teachers are expected to lead by example, be role models and honor core values, she said.
The school system operates under an ideal that holds respect, responsibility, honesty and accountability as core values for all students and employees to abide, and the board clearly felt that Murmer had gone outside those parameters with his art.
Afterward, Anthony called the vote "a bad day for the First Amendment."
"Chesterfield lost a tremendous asset today," he said.
Murmer, a teacher at Monacan High School, was suspended in December after objections were raised about his private abstract artwork, much of which includes smearing his posterior and genitals with paint and pressing them against canvas.
His paintings sell for as much as $900 each on his Web site.
The unique approach to art became a topic when a clip showing Murmer, wearing a fake nose and glasses, a towel on his head and black thong, turned up on YouTube.com.
That video inevitably made its way to the high school.
Murmer contacted the American Civil Liberties Union after he was suspended, and ACLU executive director Kent Willis said Tuesday night the case is far from simple.
"A public employee such as a school teacher has a right to free expression outside the work place so long as that free expression doesn't go beyond his ability to do his job," Willis said after learning of the board's vote to dismiss Murmer.
"The question is, 'Does his art interfere with his ability to teach?"'
Willis noted that it wasn't until the county decided to suspend Murmer a month ago that the video illustrating his unusual approach to art became a topic of discussion.
He said the county has overreacted with its decision to fire Murmer.