By May 19, 2017 Read More →

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press condemns arrest of reporter at WV Capitol

By JAKE ZUCKERMAN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The arrest of a journalist at the West Virginia Capitol Complex while trying to ask questions of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has sparked national outrage, and prompted the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to send a letter condemning the response of law enforcement.

On Wednesday, in a letter sent to the Capitol Police, the Division of Protective Services and the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, the committee said pressing charges is an inappropriate response, and Capitol Police should give more latitude to those who are clearly reporting.

“If a reporter is talking too loudly, an instruction to lower his voice may well be appropriate and reasonable,” the letter states. “If someone who is clearly a reporter does breach a security line, she could be held off or moved from her location without interfering with her ability to cover a newsworthy situation. A more serious remedy like arrest would only be warranted if a journalist clearly threatens someone’s physical safety.”

Several other news associations co-signed the letter.

Authorities with the West Virginia Capitol Police arrested Dan Heyman, a reporter with the Public News Service, on May 9 and charged him with the willful disruption of governmental processes after he jockeyed with a Secret Service agent to ask Price a question about the American Health Care Act.

Price entered the Capitol, accompanied by Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., and Kellyanne Conway, special counselor to President Donald Trump. When Heyman approached the entourage, using his phone as a recorder, he asked Price if domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under the AHCA.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail filed a Freedom of Information Act request to view the security footage of the incident. Authorities with the Division of Protective Services denied this request, citing an exemption to open records laws pertaining to terroristic threats, among other statutory exemptions.

In Heyman’s audio recording of the event, he asks Price his question once, which goes unanswered. Heyman then repeats it.

In an interview, Heyman said a Secret Service agent then commanded him to back up.

“Do not get close to her [Conway],” the agent says in the recording. “Back up.”

Heyman then repeats his question and asks Price to either answer or decline to comment as he grows out of breath.

Eventually, a member of the Capitol Police arrives, and Heyman seems to threaten the officer with media exposure.

“Yeah, you want to talk to a member of the press, you want to beat me up and end up on the news tonight?” he says.

The officer then attempts to calm Heyman, telling him to relax. Heyman tells him not to take his phone. He can then be heard being taken away by police, breathing heavily, as he asks the officer his name (Lt. Tim Johnson), badge number and whether he’s under arrest.

“You know those people are there for a reason? The security detail? Really? Was it worth all that?” Johnson asks.

Heyman responds, “Well, I got a story out of it.”

According to the criminal complaint, authorities made the arrest because Heyman was “aggressively breaching the Secret Service agents to the point where they were forced to remove him a couple of times from the area walking up the hallway in the main building of the Capitol.”

However, the complaint appears to contradict itself, going on to say officers detained Heyman “before he tried aggressively to breach the security of the Secret Service.”

Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, attributed the apparent contradiction to imprecise wording, saying that because the complaint already established one “breach,” the second statement refers to the prevention of another.

When asked for specific detail regarding Heyman’s behavior, Messina said it’s likely such things will be hashed out in court.

However, he said the department stands by the charges as submitted.

“Our response to whatever he [Heyman] has to say is in the criminal complaint, and Capitol Police remain confident in the complaint they filed,” he said.

Heyman said Wednesday that he did not realize the men in suits surrounding the pack were Secret Service agents and that they did not identify themselves as law enforcement. He also said he did not see their earpieces, the usual giveaway of a security detail.

“I guess some of them were probably Secret Service, but being Secret Service, they didn’t identify themselves as such, just guys in suits,” he said. “I guess, in retrospect, it should have been fairly obvious. But they don’t wear signs.”

Heyman refuted the allegations made in the criminal complaint, and said he was just trying to ask a question.

“I wasn’t trying to get past anybody; I wasn’t trying to breach the Secret Service, whatever that means, or disrupt a governmental process, whatever that means,” he said. “I was just trying to get my phone close enough to Secretary Price, and I wasn’t trying to get into his personal space either. I just wanted to get it close enough to him to be able to record him.”

Although footage was not made available, several eyewitnesses to the arrest said Heyman tried to get through the security detail’s perimeter to ask Price his question.

Chris Zenn said she saw Heyman approach the group when they entered the Capitol, using his phone as a recorder, trying to get through. She said she didn’t realize the men in suits were the Secret Service.

“The security guards were all around in plain clothes, I think he [Heyman] was trying to get in and talk to the secretary,” she said.

Kristin O’Sullivan was at the event as a protester. She said she didn’t see any scuffle herself. She saw Heyman inside the perimeter and said he must have gotten in there one way or another.

“When I had the visual on him, if he had been jockeying, it would have already happened,” she said. “He was right behind Secretary Price. He had to have gotten in there somehow, and there was a big group of folks. I would not say, just from my vantage point and from what I saw, that I saw that [jockeying], but I know that I saw him from the point he was behind Secretary Price.”

Valerie Woody, the protest organizer and an eyewitness to the event, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this report.

In an email, Heyman said he only resorted to yelling questions because of a lack of media availability.

“I was reduced to yelling out a question in the hallway of the state Capitol by the fact that he has, I must assume, been dodging the press and the public to avoid [answering] questions about health care,” Heyman said. “If he had a press conference, I would have asked my one question, sat down and shut up. But he has not been holding any press availability when traveling around the country.”

Roughly an hour after the arrest, Price and Conway held an already-scheduled news conference, taking only four questions.

When asked if he was aware of the news conference at the time, Heyman said he was, but didn’t expect to have his questions answered.

“It’s not like that department [DHHS] or the Republicans have been particularly willing to talk about health care; let’s be honest here,” he said. “[Price] answered the minimum amount of questions that he could on a topic that he could control, and again, this is speculation on my part, but it fits a pattern of what administration officials have been doing, trying to avoid the public because they’re embarrassed about these angry town halls.”

The arrest drew outrage on an international scale, amid clampdowns on press freedom since the beginning of the Trump presidency, although press protection groups have responded in different, sometimes limited capacities.

The Journalism Institute of the National Press Club opted to stay out of the issue, letting other news associations take the lead. Kathy Kiely, a fellow with the institute, said an infringement on the free press requires no stretch of the imagination, but the organization won’t enter the fray until more facts come to light, which will be more difficult, given the FOIA request denial.

“Given the atmosphere right now with how reporters are being treated, any kind of reporter being interfered with, we take it seriously,” she said. “We’re all aware that, sometimes, things can happen in close quarters when there’s security involved, and reporters trying to do their job and security trying to do their job. But given the current environment and the tone being set by the president of the United States about reporters, it makes us more concerned. We realize reporters aren’t always right but, given the atmosphere, we’re hyper-vigilant.”

Jake Jarvis contributed to this report.

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