CHARLESTON, WV (AP) — Police in West Virginia’s Capitol arrested a journalist who they said was trying “aggressively” to get past Secret Service agents and yelling questions at U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price during his visit to the state.
It happened as Price and senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway visited the state Capitol in Charleston on Tuesday to learn about efforts to fight opioid addiction in a state that has the nation’s highest overdose death rate.
Capitol police said in a criminal complaint that Daniel Ralph Heyman, 54, “was aggressively breaching the secret service agents to the point where the agents were forced to remove him a couple of times from the area” in a Capitol hallway. It also says he was “causing a disturbance by yelling questions at Ms. Conway and Secretary Price.”
Price and Conway later took reporters’ questions at a scheduled news conference.
Heyman, who works for the independent Public News Service, was charged with willful disruption of governmental processes, a misdemeanor, and later was released on $5,000 bond. He said during a Tuesday night news conference that he believed he was doing nothing wrong.
“I’m not sure why, but at some point, I think they decided I was just too persistent in asking this question and trying to do my job and so they arrested me,” he said.
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.
“You can’t break through the Secret Service line because you want to ask a question and then claim a First Amendment right to break through a Secret Service line,” he said. “Everyone understands there are safety concerns about public officials, and journalists are routinely respectful of those things. It appears he was a very insistent questioner. Did that insistent questioning somehow cross the line that threatened the safety of the public official?”
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.”
Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which oversees the Capitol police, said the officers’ action was based on the Capitol police’s observation of the incident.
Messina said based on the criminal complaint, Heyman “was physically trying to get his way past the Secret Service agents. And he did so repeatedly. And after one time too many, the Capitol police stepped in.”
Health and Human Services spokeswoman Alleigh Marre referred security questions to the Secret Service and on the arrest to the Capitol police. A call to the Secret Service public affairs office in Washington, D.C., went unanswered Wednesday.
During a news conference Tuesday night that was posted on Facebook by the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Heyman said he’s been a journalist for three decades and has been with Public News Service since 2009.
He said he was arrested after asking repeatedly — and getting no reply — whether domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under the proposed health care overhaul. He said he was recording audio on his cellphone and reached it past Price’s staffers.
The ACLU chapter said in a statement that Heyman’s arrest “is a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press. The charges against him are outrageous, and they must be dropped immediately.”
The statement added the ACLU “stands ready to fight any attempt by the government to infringe upon our First Amendment rights. What President Trump’s administration is forgetting, and what the Capitol Police forgot today, is that the government works for us. Today was a dark day for democracy. But the rule of law will prevail. The First Amendment will prevail.”
According to its website, Boulder, Colorado-based Public News Service manages independent news services in 36 states, reporting on a variety of social, community and environmental issues for print and radio customers. The news service said it would issue a statement on the arrest later.