CHARLESTON, W.Va. (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.
It happened as Price and senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway came to 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 is based in Charleston and 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. No court hearing was immediately set. The charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $100 fine.
Heyman told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he believes he did nothing wrong.
He said he was arrested after he repeatedly asked Price about whether domestic violence is a pre-existing condition under the Republican health care proposals and got no response.
Heyman, a journalist for three decades and a Public News Service employee since 2009, said he was wearing a press badge and his questions were directed only at Price, not at Conway. He was recording audio on his cellphone and said he reached the device past Price’s staffers.
Public News Service CEO Lark Corbeil and Heyman’s attorney, Tim DiPiero of Charleston, said on a conference call Wednesday that the charges should be dropped.
“There is no reason for this,” Corbeil said. “It’s an overreach.”
DiPiero called the state statute “very vague” and said he’s “never had a case in which a guy got in trouble for speaking, for talking loud.”
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 that 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.”
A call to the Secret Service public affairs office in Washington, D.C., went unanswered Wednesday.
Kristen O’Sullivan, a breast cancer survivor from Athens, West Virginia, was among a small group in the hallway hoping to talk to Price about the health care overhaul. As Heyman asked questions of Price, police officers “grabbed him by the scruff of the neck” and led Heyman away, she said.
“It could have been handled completely differently,” O’Sullivan said. “I saw him as doing his job and asking tough questions and Secretary Price trying not to pay attention to anyone that was there.”
At an appearance Wednesday in Concord, New Hampshire, Price said police in West Virginia “did what they felt was appropriate” and that arresting Heyman was “not my decision to make.”
The American Civil Liberties Union’s West Virginia 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, “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 social, community and environmental issues for print and radio customers.
Associated Press reporter Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire contributed to this report.