Sept. 6, 2017 – Charges have been dropped against radio reporter Dan Heyman, who was arrested May 9 after he persisted in asking questions of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in a hallway at the West Virginia capitol.
“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,” a joint press release from the prosecutor’s office and Heyman’s legal team said.
He had been arrested for “willfully disrupting a State governmental process or meeting,” a misdemeanor. Heyman faced six months in prison if he was found guilty. He was released on the night of his arrest on $5,000 bail.
“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 statement said.
The arrest was widely condemned by advocates for press freedom and the right to report.
“This is a chilling attack on the right to report,” NewsGuild President Bernie Lunzer said at the time. “The arrest is part of a pattern of escalating attacks on the media since the Trump administration took office, which the union is determined to fight.”
Price refused to condemn the arrest, saying the West Virginia Capitol Police did “what they thought was appropriate.”
Heyman’s arrest was the first widely-known assault on press freedom during the Trump administration after Inauguration Day, when several journalists covering protests were charged.
Heyman’s arrest was quickly followed by other well-publicized attacks on reporters. NewsGuild member Ben Jacobs was body-slammed by Rep. Greg Gianforte on May 25, the eve his special-election victory in the race for Montana’s House seat. John M. Donnelly, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly, was “manhandled” and “pinned to a wall” by security guards after he attempted to question an FCC Commissioner after a public hearing on May 18.
Domestic Violence a Pre-Existing Condition?
Price was in Charleston on May 9 to meet with local and state officials and representatives of addiction treatment groups about the opioid crisis in the state.
Heyman repeatedly asked him whether domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under the Republican health care bill, which had passed the House five days earlier. Before passage of the Affordable Care Act, in some cases being the victim of domestic violence was considered a pre-existing condition, Heyman said, and women who experienced it were denied health care coverage.
“I’m supposed to find out if someone is going to be affected by this health care law,” Heyman said after his arrest. “I think it’s a question that deserves to be answered. I think it’s my job to ask questions and I think it’s my job to try to get answers.”
Heyman was recording audio on his phone, which he reached out toward Price, past the secretary’s staffers, as he walked down the hall. He asked Price the question repeatedly but Price did not answer.
Heyman said he told police officers he was a reporter at the time of the arrest. He was wearing his press credentials over a shirt bearing the Public News Service’s insignia when he was charged with “willful disruption of state government processes.”
The West Virginia ACLU and numerous other organizations immediately denounced the arrest. “Today was a dark day for democracy,” the ACLU of West Virginia said on May 9. “But the rule of law will prevail. The First Amendment will prevail.”
Heyman has been a radio reporter since 2009 for Public News Service, which provides content to media outlets and publishes its own stories. Heyman has been a reporter for about 30 years, with his work appearing in the New York Times, NPR and other national news outlets.