Lawyer, CEO want charge dropped against journalist
Charleston, W.Va. — A West Virginia journalist arrested after repeatedly asking U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question said he did nothing wrong, and his attorney and the media outlet’s founder want the charge dropped.
Reporter Daniel Ralph Heyman, who works for the independent Public News Service, was arrested by police at the state Capitol in Charleston during Price’s visit Tuesday.
He had wanted to ask Price about whether domestic violence is a pre-existing condition under the Republican health care proposal. Heyman got no response. So he tried again. And again.
Capitol police said in a criminal complaint that Heyman, 54, caused a disturbance with his persistent questions and “was aggressively breaching” Secret Service agents who accompanied Price.
Heyman said Wednesday that he used his cellphone to record audio and he had to reach over the shoulders of some of Price’s staffers to get the device closer to him.
Charleston-based Heyman was charged with willful disruption of governmental processes, a misdemeanor, and later was released on $5,000 bond. No court hearing was immediately set. The charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $100 fine.
“I’ve never had a case in which a guy got in trouble for speaking, for talking loud,” said Heyman’s lawyer, Tim DiPiero of Charleston.
DiPiero called the statute “very vague.” During a conference call Wednesday, he and Public News Service CEO Lark Corbeil asked that the charge not be pursued by the state.
“There is no reason for this,” Corbeil said. “It’s an overreach.”
At an appearance Wednesday in Concord, New Hampshire, Price said police in West Virginia “did what they felt was appropriate” and that arresting Heyman was “not my decision to make.”
Heyman, a journalist for three decades and a Public News Service employee since 2009, said he was wearing a press badge and his questions were directed only at Price, not at White House aide Kellyanne Conway, who had accompanied Price to learn about efforts to fight opioid addiction in a state that has the nation’s highest overdose death rate.
Price and Conway later took reporters’ questions at a scheduled news conference. But Heyman decided to find Price beforehand in a hallway.
Kristen O’Sullivan, a breast cancer survivor from Athens, West Virginia, was among a small group in the hallway hoping to talk to Price about the health care overhaul. As Heyman asked questions, police officers “grabbed him by the scruff of the neck” and led him away, she said.
“It could have been handled completely differently,” O’Sullivan said. “I saw him as doing his job and asking tough questions and Secretary Price trying not to pay attention to anyone that was there.”
Robert W. Jensen, a media law and ethics professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism and a former newspaper reporter and editor, said reporters have limits on their actions in public places with politicians and public officials, especially those protected by the Secret Service.
However, Jensen also said he’s concerned that President Donald Trump’s administration “has engaged in something like open warfare with journalists. Every time there is a further infringement on the rights of journalists who both collect and disseminate information in this type of atmosphere, it’s troubling.”
The American Civil Liberties Union’s West Virginia chapter said in a statement that Heyman’s arrest “is a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press.”
According to its website, Boulder, Colorado-based Public News Service manages independent news services in 36 states, reporting on social, community and environmental issues for print and radio customers.