Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price headed to West Virginia to discuss the opioid crisis, but instead he ended up in the middle of a potential First Amendment battle as police arrested a reporter for “yelling questions” at him.
On Tuesday, as Price and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway walked through the hallway of the state capitol to meet with local lawmakers, reporter Dan Heyman asked Price whether domestic violence would be labeled a pre-existing condition under the American Health Care Act. Price declined to answer, and Heyman’s questions were silenced when West Virginia police arrested him for “willful disruption of government processes.”
According to a criminal complaint filed about the incident, Capitol Police arrested Heyman, a reporter for Public News Service, as he was “aggressively breaching the secret service agents” and “causing a disturbance by yelling questions” at Price and Conway.
Heyman told a different story.
“I was recording audio on my phone and I reached it out to him, past his staffers and the other people who were with him and I asked him the question repeatedly and he did not answer,” Heyman told reporters in a Tuesday night press conference after being released on a $5,000 bond. “At some point, I think they decided I was too persistent in asking this question and trying to do my job, and so they arrested me.”
Price told STAT News he applauded local police for “doing what they thought was appropriate,” though he didn’t reveal whether he agreed it was the right call.
But Heyman said the arrest set a “terrible example” for reporters and press freedom. “This is my job,” he said. “This is what I’m supposed to do.”
“I saw nothing in his behavior, I heard nothing that indicated any kind of aggressive behavior or anything like that,” Valerie Wood, an outreach coordinator for the West Virginia Citizen Action Group who witnessed the arrest, told Public News Service. “Just simple, you know, trying to get somebody’s attention and ask them a question. It seems to me there was no violation of anyone’s space, or physicality, other than the arrest itself.”
“Other reporters covered Tuesday’s visit and posed questions without incident,” Lawrence Messina, a spokesperson for the West Virginia’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which oversees the Capitol Police, wrote an email to VICE News. “Also, the visit concluded with a press conference that this individual could have attended, as other reports did.
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia condemned the charges as “outrageous.” The ACLU also pointed out that Heyman’s arrest “didn’t happen in a vacuum,” as President Donald Trump has denounced several news outlets as “the enemy of the American people,” and had his campaign temporarily revoke the press credentials of outlets like the Washington Post, Politico, and Buzzfeed.
If convicted for the misdemeanor, Heyman faces being charged with a fine of up to $100, spending six months in jail, or both.