Antiabortion protester Rives Grogan is escorted out by Capitol Police… (Drew Angerer / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- Rives Grogan was up a tree during President Obama's inauguration. Now he's out on a limb, legally speaking.
The Los Angeles man has been barred from the nation's capital pending his trial on misdemeanor charges stemming from the loud antiabortion protest he staged while 40 feet up a tree on Inauguration Day. His case has triggered a free speech debate.
"I've never been banned from a city before," he said.
The unusual court order, which bars Grogan from the District of Columbia except for court-related appearances, comes after the antiabortion activist has been arrested, by his count, more than 30 times.
He has shouted from the visitors galleries in the House and Senate chambers, from inside the Supreme Court during its proceedings, from a tree during a vice presidential debate in Kentucky, and as he ran onto the baseball field with an "Abortion is Sin" sign at a Cincinnati Reds home game.
He is due to return to D.C. for a Feb. 25 hearing growing out of his five-hour Inauguration Day protest.
The magistrate judge's order, reported by the Washington Post, went beyond the U.S. attorney's request that Grogan be prohibited from the U.S. Capitol grounds.
D.C. Superior Court Magistrate Judge Karen Howze, citing Grogan's frequent run-ins with the law, told him last week: "You need a cooling-off period."
The U.S. attorney’s office, noting that Grogan has been arrested three times within the past month for "disruptive conduct’’ on the Capitol grounds, said his actions on Inauguration Day "commanded hours of attention by law enforcement and caused substantial disruption for those around him who had come to enjoy this historic occasion."
"Pastor Rick" Grogan, 47, who describes himself as a street preacher, said he is exercising his 1st Amendment rights.
The Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, has come to his defense, calling the order a "gross overreach of the court's authority which unnecessarily inhibits Grogan's freedom of speech and freedom of movement."
"It's the citizen's right to confront the government and demand that it alter its policies, but first, citizens have to be seen and heard, and only under extraordinary circumstances should free speech ever be restricted," said John W. Whitehead, the institute's president.
Washington radio station WTOP quoted Colin Cloherty, a professional football player who was near Grogan during the inauguration, as saying, "He kept yelling through the prayer, the different speeches and the poem. It was pretty disruptive to the people that were right there."
Bill Miller of the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, said that "stay-away" orders covering all of the District of Columbia are not unprecedented and have been granted in cases "when a defendant has no legitimate personal or work-related business in the district and such an order is necessary to assure compliance with the law and protect the safety of others."
Grogan, who is back in Los Angeles this week, said he sees civil disobedience as a way to draw attention to the antiabortion cause. When not protesting, he said, he runs the New Beginnings Christian Discipleship out of his home, which also serves as a boarding house, near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Grogan, who said he was holding an antiabortion sign while up the tree, refused police orders to climb down, climbing higher after the fire department arrived with ladders. He was "jeopardizing his own life and the life of others if the tree branch he was on had broken," a police report said.
As it was, some branches broke off, authorities said, contributing to a charge of destroying government property.
"The suspect remained in the tree and continually yelled during the entire inauguration," according to the police report. After the swearing-in, Grogan climbed down and was arrested, police said.
If found guilty on the destruction-of-property charge, he faces a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and $1,000 fine. Climbing a tree on the Capitol grounds also carries a maximum $500 fine and and a sentence of six months behind bars.
Grogan also could face 90 to 180 days of additional jail time if convicted on a charge of committing a new offense while on release in another case, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
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