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‘Bigfoot’ takes free speech fight to N.H. high court

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / October 23, 2011

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On a whim two years ago, performance artist Jonathan Doyle paraded around the bustling peak of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock in a $40 Bigfoot costume from iParty.

He thought his deadpan video interviews with hikers describing their Bigfoot sightings would be worth a few chuckles on YouTube, and might boost the profile of his other artwork.

But the staff at Monadnock State Park found the Yeti act abominable. When Doyle returned with friends to shoot a sequel, the park manger quashed the production and ordered Doyle off the mountain, insisting he needed a state permit to film a movie in the park.

Bigfoot stepped up with a lawsuit, alleging that the park’s permit regulations are unconstitutional.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court next month will hear Doyle’s complaint. Though many elements of the dispute border on the absurd, the case raises some serious free speech issues.

“What this suit is about for us is preserving the right of the little guy to express himself artistically,’’ said Barbara Keshen, a lawyer with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Foundation, which is representing Doyle.

Doyle, of Keene, is seeking the right to return to Monadnock with his costume and camera, and to have the court declare that the state cannot regulate his small-scale speech.

By pushing his complaint to the Granite State’s highest court, “I am maintaining the integrity of being real, enjoying day-to-day things, and having fun with your friends,’’ Doyle said in an interview. “If I let that go, I’ve given up a significant right to the state.’’

The 31-year-old Doyle falls under the catchall euphemism of a free spirit: He’s an artist, writer, and day laborer who sells art and designs commercial logos, while he makes a living drilling wells and building fences. On his “Legends of Monadnock’’ blog, Doyle interprets the proverbs of William Blake. Last winter he packed up and went to St. Thomas to work as a waiter.

“Jon is indeed a contemporary renaissance man,’’ said his friend and fellow artist, Alex Gutterman, who met Doyle several years ago when they studied Aikido together. “He’s kind of a futurist, very interested in developing technologies and how they impact human consciousness, as well as the arts. He’s interested in the sciences, and in spiritual inquiry. And of course he has the normal interests of a young man, such as wine, women, and song.’’

In Doyle’s free speech case, few facts are in dispute.

He hiked the mountain on a sunny September day in 2009, donned the Bigfoot costume at the summit, and hammed it up for some photographs. Still in costume, he interviewed hikers and filmed their tongue-in-cheek responses. Doyle posted the video on the Internet. He said he was tickled by the feedback.

He recruited a few friends for a sequel and drafted a press release to publicize it.

The Keene Sentinel picked up the story.

On Sept. 19, Doyle and his friends gathered to film a skit in a clearing next to a less-used Monadnock trail, partway up the mountain. That was when the park manager gave Bigfoot the boot, because Doyle had not sought a “special use permit,’’ required for events that “go beyond routine recreational activities,’’ according to court filings.

The permit requirement is at the heart of the legal case.

In its Supreme Court brief, the state argues that the permit requirements are reasonable to help the park staff manage competing uses on one of the most-climbed mountains in the world.

The permit regulations are for “mitigating the impacts of commercial events’’ in state parks, and “protecting visitors from unwelcome or unwarranted interference, annoyance, or danger,’’ among other considerations, the state wrote in its brief.

The problem, from Doyle’s perspective, is that permits cost $100, there is a 30-day waiting period, and anyone who wants a permit must post a $2 million insurance bond to protect against injuries and damage, adding several hundred dollars to the cost, according to filings.

That’s too much cash and red tape for a few friends out on a lark with a consumer video camera, Doyle argues.

“It may be a reasonable requirement if Steven Spielberg wanted to film a movie on Mount Monadnock, but it is not reasonable for someone in our plaintiff’s shoes,’’ said Keshen.

Last spring, a lower court sided with the state, ruling that the regulations are constitutional.

Doyle appealed to the high court.

He still has the Bigfoot costume, and hopes to return to the park to film in it. In the meantime, he has numerous art projects in development, and continues to engage in public performances.

Last year, Doyle created an elaborate, brilliant-white angel costume with feathered wings, a melancholy Venetian mask, and a gold crown.

He wore the costume into St. James Episcopal Church in Keene - smack in the middle of Sunday services - spread his wings, and stood stump-still in the back of the church.

“The preacher, he just sort of grabbed it right away and started to work with it,’’ said Doyle. “It was just so shocking. He just started to talk about certain concepts in the Bible and the mystery of God and how God is found in very strange ways and mysterious places.’’

Doyle leaves the point of the performance, like his Bigfoot adventures, for the viewer to interpret.

The priest celebrating at St. James that day was the Rev. Norman MacLeod, now the rector at a church in Vermont. He said in a phone interview that he remembers seeing the angel that day in Keene, though he never knew who was in the costume.

“I have no idea what his intentions were,’’ said MacLeod, who did not alter the service in response to Doyle. “Was it a statement of faith? A way of mocking faith? Was it art?’’ He chuckled. “I don’t know. I wasn’t offended. I was kind of intrigued.’’

Doyle plans next month to sail to St. Thomas to wait tables again for four to five months. The money is pretty good, he said, for a guy who’s used to not having much of it.

“It’s hard to have a quality job in this life if you’re transient and creative and spontaneous,’’ said Doyle. “To make my own plans work and for everything to be by my own rules, it seems I have to do it this way.’’

The state Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Doyle’s case on Nov. 10.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.