Updated: Journalist describes arrest at West Virginia state capitol

May 9, 2017 11:45

UPDATED West Virginia state capitol police arrested a reporter Tuesday, after pulling him away as he tried to ask a question of visiting Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Court records show Charleston-based Public News Service reporter Dan Heyman has been charged with "willful disruption of governmental processes."

Heyman says he was trying to get Secretary Price to answer a question whether domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under the U.S. House of Representatives recently-passed version of the American Health Care Act.

The criminal complaint says Secret Service agents were "...forced to remove him a couple of times from the area walking up the hallway in the main building of the Capitol." He was taken into custody by the capitol police. He was released on $5000 bail. At a news conference held by the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday night, Heyman said he was, "trying to do my job."

RTDNA, through its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force, has offered and is providing assistance to Heyman and Public News Service.

Tuesday evening, Lark Corbeil, CEO for Public News Service had this comment about the incident: “Dan was doing his job, asking questions of our government officials as he has for many years covering what’s important to the people of West Virginia. Dan was simply exercising his rights as protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It’s a concern that there seems to be an antipathy towards the press. An arrest for a reporter doing his job is clearly unnecessary.”

On Wednesday, Corbeil, Heyman and his attorney held a news conference to brief reporters on the case. Corbiel repeated that Heyman was doing his job and, "He was exercising his First Amendment rights. These charges should be dropped. It is an overreach."

Heyman's lawyer Tim DiPiero said Heyman, "...wasn't doing anything different than what happens every day in statehouses around the country." DiPiero questioned the constitutionality of the law under which his client was arrested, calling it vague, and wondered aloud how asking a question of a federal official walking down a hallway would be disruptive to the process of state government, which the law seeks to address.

DiPiero added, "A reporter asking questions should end up in an orange jumpsuit. It's not right. It's not what American stands for. I've never had a client arrested for talking."

Heyman described the scene on Tuesday: "I was waiting in a public space, having gone through metal detector already. I was holding out my cell phone to get good audio. Secretary Price had a group of men around him, some of whom I presume were staffers and others Secret Service. They were men in suits."

"As every reporter can attest," he continued, "if you want to reach a source in a group, you will reach over the people in front of you to get the microphone close. I was holding the phone over the the people surrounding Secretary Price, trying to get it close enough to get a decent recording. I asked my question about pre-existing conditions. I asked three times, and he did not respond. I then offered him the chance to say, 'no comment,' and he still did not answer. Having asked the question three or four times, I was arrested."

Describing the arrest, Heyman said, "The police did not ask me to back up, they did not give me the opportunity to walk away. I was wearing a press pass, behaving like a reporter. I don't know whether his people saw the pass, but I was in a public place, asking a public servant a question about public policy."

The criminal complaint mentioned Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, but Heyman said, "She was there, but I wasn't interesting talking to her and didn't ask her anything. The complaint says I was trying to breach security. I was not."

No date has been set for a hearing on the misdemeanor charges, which carry a $100 fine and up to six months in jail. DiPiero said court dates are usually set with 20 days, and the case will be heard in Charleston.

See Heyman's Tuesday night ACLU news conference here.

Read the criminal complaint here.

See Public News Service's own story about the incident here.