Banned treetop protestor sparks US free speech row

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 25, 2013 07:40 hrs

Washington, Jan 25 (IANS/RIA Novosti) A free speech battle is brewing in Washington after a judge banished from the US capital an anti-abortion protestor who scaled a tree and shouted repeatedly during US President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony this week.

Rives Grogan, a 47-year-old self-described "open-air preacher", was arrested by police Monday for disorderly conduct after he climbed a tree near the Capitol reflecting pool and attempted to shout down Obama during Monday's ceremony.

Grogan is a notoriously belligerent anti-abortion activist who has been arrested by Washington police numerous times in the past for his protests near the US Capitol.

His treetop expedition might have just been another routine encounter with authorities for him if not for judge Karen Howze, who Tuesday ordered Grogan to be arrested should he set foot in Washington before his scheduled Feb 25 hearing in connection with the incident.

Grogan told RIA Novosti Thursday that he was "flabbergasted" when he heard the judge's order, which he called a clear violation of his rights under the US Constitution.

"I've been arrested probably over 30 times since 1994," Grogan said in a telephone interview. "There is no city in the whole United States that has ever told me to stay out altogether. They don't want me on Capitol Hill because I open-air preach loud enough so they can hear me."

Grogan said he was driving his red Ford Fiesta back to Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and three children. He said he was in Tennessee when reached by RIA Novosti on his cell phone Thursday and that he planned to visit his parents near Irving, Texas.

John Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer who has taken Grogan's case, called Howze's order banning Grogan from Washington "oppressive, draconian and unconstitutional."

"Climbing a tree might be eccentric to some, but obviously he was trying to be heard," said Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that provides free legal services to individuals in constitutional and human rights cases.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, was enacted specifically to protect individuals like Grogan, whose opinions may run counter to the majority's, Whitehead said.

"He's being punished for standing up for what he believes in, whether it be from the top of a tree" or elsewhere, Whitehead told RIA Novosti.

In making her ruling, Howze said Grogan was endangering "hundreds of people, disrupting the inauguration throughout," The Washington Post reported, citing a transcript of the proceedings.

Police accused Grogan of breaking several tree branches and said in their report that he was "jeopardizing his life and the life of others" with his aerial agitation, The Washington Post reported.

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