No, Public News Service reporter Dan Heyman was not engaging in “willful disruption of governmental processes.”
Charges against Heyman, who pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price with questions in the West Virginia Capitol building in May, have been dropped, according to a joint announcement from the Public News Service and the Kanawha County prosecuting attorney. “The State has determined, after a careful review of the facts, that Mr. Heyman’s conduct, while it may have been aggressive journalism, was not unlawful and did not violate the law with which he was charged, that is, willfully disrupting a State governmental process or meeting,” notes the joint statement. “Mr. Heyman certainly appreciates the State’s decision and affirmatively states that he was simply doing his job as a reporter by asking questions of a federal official as that official walked through the Capitol.”
The West Virginia incident is ancient history when it comes to affronts to U.S. journalists, coming long before President Trump’s full-on attacks against the media at a recent rally in Arizona and before the body-slamming of a Guardian journalist by Republican Greg Gianforte in the final moments of his run for Montana’s sole congressional seat, which he ultimately won.
Yet it should not be forgotten. To recap, Heyman was following Price and White House aide Kellyanne Conway as they made their way through the building. They’d come to hear about opioid addiction. In a scene that plays out in legislative corridors across the country, Heyman was walking along as he asked Price a question about health-care policy. Specifically, he wanted to know whether domestic violence would be considered a preexisting condition under the Republican health-care bill. “Do you think that’s right or not, secretary?” Heyman asked, according to a recording an audio recording Heyman provided to a reporter at The Post. “You refuse to answer? Tell me, ‘No comment.’”
Not long thereafter, Heyman, a reporter for three decades, was arrested.
In a video news conference Wednesday afternoon, Heyman placed his experience in proper perspective. Journalists in Mexico, he mentioned, continue being gunned down for doing their jobs. “I never felt like I was in that kind of danger,” said Heyman, who came away heartened about support for his line of work. “It’s always good to see that people really support a free press. When there’s a tug of war between folks who want to rein in the media and the ability of reporters like us to do our job … I’m glad to see that people are willing to speak up.”
According to Tim DiPiero, an attorney for Heyman, the reporter saved himself from legal peril by using a tool of the trade. A recording from Heyman’s device, along with video from the corridor itself, were the main pieces of evidence, DiPiero said in Wednesday’s video conference. At one point during the encounter, an official asked Heyman to move away from Conway, and DiPiero was able to prove that he complied with that request, even as he attempted to pry an answer from Price.
Lark Corbeil, Public News Service’s chief executive, said Wednesday that her outfit didn’t have to pay legal fees to resolve the case, thanks to support from the Society of Professional Journalists and pro bono assistance from the law firm Wilmer Hale. “The First Amendment was tested, and, thankfully, our system and democratic values withstood the challenge,” Corbeil said in a statement. “Our leaders do not get to choose which freedoms to support; anyone who encourages arresting or assaulting journalists is assaulting our Constitution. Dan Heyman and the other journalists at Public News Service will never stop asking the tough questions on behalf of those who can’t.”
The dropped charges sprinkle fresh context on a comment made by Price about the work of the police in the aftermath of the controversial arrest. “They were doing a stellar job,” he said.