WE WILL be the first to acknowledge that reporters can be persistent — sometimes even obnoxious — in asking questions. But that, at least in the United States, has not generally been considered a crime. So it’s more than a little troubling that a reporter in West Virginia was handcuffed, placed under arrest and put in jail after trying to ask a question of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
The events unfolded Tuesday in the State Capitol in Charleston when Dan Heyman, a journalist with Public News Service, pestered Mr. Price as he walked through a hallway with questions about whether domestic violence would be considered a preexisting condition under the health-care legislation passed last week by the House to replace the Affordable Care Act. “You refuse to answer? Tell me no comment,” Mr. Heyman said moments before officers of the West Virginia Division of Protective Services, also known as the Capitol Police, pulled him aside and arrested him.
Mr. Heyman was charged with a misdemeanor count of willful disruption of state government processes. The complaint alleges he was “aggressively breaching” the Secret Service agents who were with Mr. Price and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on their listening tour about efforts to fight opioid addiction. A spokesman for the Capitol Police insisted the arrest was not about his questions but his physical actions.
Why then did the complaint note “the defendant was causing a disturbance by yelling questions at Ms. Conway and Secretary Price”? Mr. Heyman, 54, regularly covers the Capitol. He had been cleared through security to enter the building and was displaying his credentials. He says his only physical action was to hold out his phone to record Mr. Price. Mr. Heyman’s lawyer observed at a news conference Tuesday night, “I’ve never had a client get arrested for talking too loud or anything similar to that.”
We would like to think Mr. Heyman’s arrest was simply an overreaction — or misunderstanding — by police unaccustomed to press scrums that have become routine in news coverage. We would have hoped that Mr. Price and Ms. Conway would have thanked the police for their devotion but made clear that no reporter should be arrested for doing his job. No such luck: On Wednesday, Mr. Price commended police and justified their actions since “that gentleman was not in a press conference.” Also on display Wednesday was President Trump’s disdain for America’s independent press as he allowed Russian media but not the American press into his Oval Office meeting with Russian officials.
Whatever the outcome of charges against Mr. Heyman — and we would urge West Virginia officials to use some common sense and drop them — a chilling message has been sent.
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