In the "Live Free or Die" state, you are now free to videotape yourself as Bigfoot or Chewbacca or even the Loch Ness Monster on public land without paying a $100 permit fee or securing a $2 million policy for liability insurance.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court in Concord ruled on Friday that state park officials violated the free speech rights of independent filmmaker Jonathan Doyle, 31, by kicking him and his amateur film crew off Mt. Monadnock back in the fall of 2009. It’s something like a landmark case for auteurs in the double-rainbow generation—in which a trip to a state or national park, once bastions of tech-free peace and quiet, can be settings for viral videos.
State officials had alleged that Doyle, all hairy-backed in a Bigfoot Halloween costume he bought at iParty, was scaring fellow hikers with the suit and possibly endangering their safety. In Superior Court hearings spread over two years, the state had argued that the filmmaker’s YouTube videos were for-profit ventures subject to permit fees, and Judge Larry Smukler agreed, describing the one-camcorder operation as "a full-fledged commercial production."
But anyone who’s watched Doyle’s amateur Bigfoot flicks can tell he’s not getting funding from Harvey Weinstein (and probably nothing even close to approval from George Lucas). His friends dressed as a pirate and Yoda (sporting an infomercial-style Snuggie) were non-professional actors. As he puts it, "I was just fooling around with my camera, nothing fancier than that."
At the state Supreme Court hearing last November, several justices questioned the mountain of paperwork demanded of Doyle, who was doing nothing different than many of us do with cell phone cameras for family videos. They noted that a bride and groom—both wearing attention-grabbing "costumes"—would not need a permit. And what about the goofy dad getting YouTube clips of his toddler playing in the leaves?
Also at the hearing, the state made the case that Doyle’s camcorder and his requests to interview random hikers about rumored Bigfoot sightings ruined the sanctity and solitude of the hiking experience. But according to the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation, Mt. Monadnock is the third most hiked mountain in the world after Japan’s Mt. Fuji and China’s Mt. Tai. Visitors to the mountain know up front that they will be tripping over fellow nature lovers.
Doyle, who has been represented pro bono by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union (NHCLU) said his intent was to use Bigfoot’s surprise appearance as a bonding opportunity for groups of strangers to laugh and interact with one another. Like a bunch of people at a dinner table texting to others, the filmmaker maintains that hikers don’t often make an effort to enjoy a shared experience with the "other cliques at the top."
As of yesterday, Doyle’s first two Bigfoot films on YouTube each were approaching 12,000 hits, a tiny blip in the viral video world, especially considering he’s enjoyed broad mass media exposure for the free speech case. But to be fair, unless you are 1970s schlockmeister Danny "Partridge" Bonaduce (now working on a Bigfoot flick for the Syfy Network), it is easy to get lost in the crowded genre.
Here’s a YouTube snapshot of it, based on keywords at the time of publication:
- Bigfoot – 153,000 results
- Big Foot – 316,000
- Sasquatch – 40,100
- Yeti – 50,500
- Abominable Snowman – 2,450
Still reveling in the surreal fact that the state’s highest court ruled on his "silly project," Doyle says he appreciates how his experience may be remembered long after memes with millions more hits.
"I’m hoping that this incident will inspire people to know that they have true power in a world where you may feel powerless," he says. "I’m certain that this case will be studied by future law students exploring issues of free speech. I’ve basically cleared the way for other people who want to be spontaneous on a mountain and be creative with their friends."
Indeed, had Doyle lost his case, would future nature-themed Internet memes (such as the whimsical "Crasher Squirrel" photos in Canada’s Banff National Park) be squashed by government regulations?
If a similar Bigfoot incident in San Francisco is any guide, it could just boil down to an isolated case of one overzealous park ranger in New Hampshire.
The Mt. Monadnock staff might benefit by glancing 3,000 miles west at Golden Gate Park, where performance artist Leslie Hensley donned a homemade Sasquatch suit several times last fall to entertain random joggers, bicyclists, and people walking their dogs.
"I scared a few people because they didn’t realize I was running right behind them, but I didn’t scare-scare them," says Hensley, who stands at 5'4" in her bare paws. "One homeless guy woke up and said I looked really cute."
"I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a cop, let alone be approached by one," she adds. "In the city, the cops are definitely not paying attention to furry monsters. They have much bigger problems. I can’t believe that New Hampshire is wasting time on that because court time is so precious. That’s really sad."
As the founder of Frankenart Mart, a collaborative participatory art program, Hensley switches themes a few times a year. She says she’s now moving on to stage an enormous battle re-enactment jumbling different wars in history with participants’ personal conflicts. So as fake World War II vets square off against fake Civil War vets along with fake high school rivals on public land, the San Francisco artist expects the real authorities to stay out of her fun.
Director Christopher Munch, who explores Sasquatch’s emotions in his new critically acclaimed film Letters From the Big Man, notes there is at least one serious danger associated with wearing a Bigfoot suit in the woods.
You can get shot.
Actor Isaac Singleton, who sat through an hour of makeup for his facial latex panels to blend, wore a day-glo orange vest over his fur in between scenes. Just a precaution against overzealous hunters in the Oregon wilderness.
Munch, who has hiked in the Monadnock area while working on films at the nearby MacDowell Colony artists’ retreat, says he hopes that park officials nationwide will consider waiving permit fees for future low-budget projects.
"The fees should definitely be proportionate to the amount of impact your production will have. I am very much in favor of parks and public lands offering free permits if the scale is small and unobtrusive," he says.