Freedom of speech issue exposed in Andover, thanks to a Yeti

  • A Yeti-like creature is seen in the woods near the intersection of Route 11 and Plains Road in Andover. LEFT: Taken Tuesday, the Yeti has a penis attached to its midsection. RIGHT: A day later, the appendage was removed, while a sign with the word “WHINERS” written on it was placed in the Yeti’s arms. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Yeti along Plains Road in Andover before it was altered on Monday night.(GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff) GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Published: 4/9/2016 12:01:08 AM

It sounds like a bad sitcom, or perhaps a dumb joke.

But the issue that’s evolved in Andover recently, fitting nicely into this bizarre rough-and-tumble campaign season, connects to our First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

And that’s always serious business.

It includes a well-known local businessman, a mysterious Yeti-like creature in the woods near his home, a pioneering former Andover selectwoman, a pair of presidential candidates and a symbolic penis.

In the end, the penis, once attached to the Yeti near the intersection of Route 11 and Plains Road, is gone, the apparent victim of town and police pressure.

As it turns out, though, the Yeti had every right to be there, appendage out front, as long as it lived on private property, and everyone interviewed for this column agreed that the wooded area probably belonged to a man named Dave Marceau.

“It is an interesting First Amendment set of issues,” said Gregory V. Sullivan, a law professor in Boston and the legal counsel for the New England First Amendment Coalition. “And I do think the guy’s art work is protected by the First Amendment.”

The creature is a menacing, dark figure with eerie red eyes. It stands in the woods, about 75 yards from the home of Marceau.

Residents presumed Marceau put it there about two years ago, with some calling it a Yeti, others a Sasquatch and others “that thing in the woods near Dave Marceau’s house.”

The Yeti was cool around Halloween, and it had lights on during Christmastime. Again, residents figured Marceau, well known around town for his gruff exterior, was the guy dressing up the scary dude for the holiday season.

“We didn’t know who was putting the Christmas lights on, but we assumed it was Dave Marceau,” said Sophie Viandier, the trailblazing former selectwoman voted into office two years ago, when she was just 21. “It was funny in the swamp, a funny community joke.”

Then the laughter stopped (sort of), and a dispute involving morality and free speech erupted between Viandier and Marceau, who, locals assumed, attached the wooden penis to the Yeti. It pointed slightly downward, directly over a Hillary Clinton campaign sign. A Donald Trump sign stood about 20 yards away, closer to the road, obviously not a target.

Obscene? No. Not according to the 1972 Supreme Court decision, Miller v. California, which is what Sullivan cited after I emailed him photos of the “naked” Yeti.

In short, if the scene caters to a prurient interest and does not represent serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value, it’s obscene.

So in this case, Marceau was within his rights.

“The courts have made clear that the government cannot restrict speech simply because it wants to protect people’s sensibilities,” Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, wrote in an email. “This is especially true where the speech is on one’s own personal property.”

“I would say what you’re looking at here is some political artwork that is protected by the First Amendment,” Sullivan said. “And that is not obscene.

“What’s obvious right away to me is what we’re looking at is political satire.”

Try telling that to Viandier, a young woman not known for backing away from a challenge. She served as a selectwoman at 21. She taught in Kenya. She bought an old local house, then gutted it, rewired it, installed plumbing, cleared brush, painted it, you name it, turning it into a home and the center for her Pay It Forward Farm.

Viandier, who left her elected post to teach in Kenya and is now back, didn’t like the appendage. She worried about all those school buses zipping past on Route 11, on their way to Andover Elementary/Middle School.

“I drove by it and got a good look at it,” Viandier said. “It’s obvious to spot if you’re higher up, like in a school bus. People are disgusted.”

Meanwhile, Jane Slayton, principal at the Andover grade and middle schools, said her students hadn’t seen the exposed Yeti.

Still, Viandier took matters into her own hands last Saturday. She said she wanted to speak to Marceau in person, try to reason with him, but he wasn’t home, so she pulled off the appendage and took it home.

Police arrived at her house, and, Viandier said, told her to reattach the penis, which she did, with help from her brother and boyfriend.

The police did not respond to several messages seeking comment and information.

Two days later, I visited Marjorie Roy, the town administrator, who said she indeed had heard about the Yeti. Her office, at the town hall, was brightly lit, with colorful flowers on the corner of her desk. Her lips pressed together when the topic came up, masking a combination, I suspected, of embarrassment and a nugget of humor.

I knew then that she knew.

“There is nothing in the sign ordinance that says anything about this,” Roy said, probably unaware that the Supreme Court definition allows a display such as Marceau’s.

I went to Marceau’s home that same day. He declined comment and not-so-politley asked me to leave.

Before I left, Marceau, obviously fed up with the attention and headache this episode had caused, ordered who I assumed to be his son to “take it down.”

It’s gone, replaced by a sign that says, “whiners,” angled across the Yeti’s chest like a sash on a beauty pageant contestant.

Monday night, seeking answers and context, I went to a scheduled select board meeting at the town hall. Roy was there, along with board members Jim Delaney, Dave Blinn and Chairwoman Vicky Mishcon.

Blinn had no idea what I was referring to when I mentioned the Yeti’s outstanding feature. Delaney defended Marceau, his friend, asking, “What happened to artistic expression? He paid his taxes.”

Even without a law degree, it turns out Delaney was right.

“The law is particularly clear that speech designed to convey a political message – even if some perceive it as offensive – is protected,” Bissonnette said.

Personally, I wouldn’t post a penis outside my home to make a statement. But Marceau, it appears, was within his First Amendment right to do so.

Who knows what he’ll do now, with the general election just seven months away. Perhaps there will be a sequel, part of a long-running, bizarre show that began last year when the process of choosing the most powerful person in the world began.

Not a sitcom, though.

Reality TV.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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