Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The West Virginia reporter arrested for trying to question Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price won his case this week, but told a journalism conference that he would have been more likely to plea bargain if not for the support he received from his employer, journalism groups and the public. "People really love the First Amendment," Dan Heyman of Public News Service said at the Excellence in Journalism convention in Anaheim, Calif. "They found it shocking to see a headline, 'Reporter arrested while asking questions.'"
Heyman said he was holding his recorder toward Price as they walked through a hall of the state Capitol, and when he wouldn't answer questions, "I tried to reach past the security people and I was promptly arrested for that." He noted that the Charleston Gazette-Mail later reported that Price was trying very hard to focus on the opioid crisis, the reason for his visit, and was working hard to avoid questions about the health-care debate in Congress. The newspaper "filed a public records request for security footage of the event," it reported. "The Division of Protective Services denied the request."
The charge, disruption of governmental process, was dropped Wednesday. "Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Chuck Miller said that while Heyman may have been somewhat overzealous in his questioning, his conduct was protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and not criminal behavior," Jake Zuckerman reported for the Gazette-Mail. Heyman said he may file a complaint against the division because it lied in its account of the incident. Bruce Sanford, chief counsel for the Society of Professional Journalists, said at SPJ's Legal Defense Fund auction Saturday that the division falsely claimed that officers had told Heyman not to bother Price.
Heyman spoke via Skype on a Friday panel titled "Enemies of the People: The Job of Journalists in 2017" at the conference sponsored by SPJ, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The title was taken from a line President Trump used to refer to the news media, and RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley said, "We believe there is a direct relationship between highest ranking public figures . . . giving permission to people who don't understand the media's role in society to lash out in more horrific ways."
Shelley said RTDNA formed a Voice of the First Amendment Task Force six months ago due to increasing reports of harassment of local reporters, and there have been dozens more since. He said the goal is to "try to help the public understand responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives," and showcase good examples of it. He said the Committee to Protect Journalists' US Freedom Tracker lists at least 20 arrests of journalists and 16 assaults on those "just trying to do their jobs."