CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia journalist who was arrested after repeatedly questioning U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price broke no law and won't be prosecuted, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
A joint press release from the independent Public News Service and the Kanawha County prosecutor's office said a review cleared Daniel Ralph Heyman (HIGH-min) of any lawbreaking.
The Charleston-based reporter for Public News Service was charged with willful disruption of governmental processes at the state Capitol in Charleston during Price's May 9 visit. Heyman had wanted to ask Price whether domestic violence is a pre-existing condition under the Republican health care proposal.
A criminal complaint by Capitol police said Heyman caused a disturbance with his persistent questions and "was aggressively breaching" Secret Service agents.
Heyman said he did nothing wrong.
"I'm very relieved," Heyman said in the statement. "Facing six months of jail time for asking a question as a journalist was pretty troubling.
"I don't want my arrest to have a chilling effect on other reporters because we all need to keep asking the tough questions of elected officials."
Heyman had wanted to ask Price whether domestic violence is a pre-existing condition under the Republican health care proposal. Heyman got no response, so he tried again. Heyman said he used his cellphone to record audio. He said he had to reach over the shoulders of some of Price's staffers to get the device closer to him.
Heyman was released on $5,000 bail following his arrest. One condition of his bail required him to stay away from the Capitol, which is part of his coverage territory.
Public News Service CEO Lark Corbeil had called Heyman's arrest "an overreach."
"The First Amendment was tested, and, thankfully, our system and democratic values withstood the challenge," Corbeil said. "Our leaders do not get to choose which freedoms to support; anyone who encourages arresting or assaulting journalists is assaulting our Constitution."
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 White House aide Kellyanne Conway, who had accompanied Price to learn about efforts to fight opioid addiction in a state that has the nation's highest overdose death rate.
Price and Conway later took reporters' questions at a scheduled news conference. But Heyman had decided to find Price beforehand in a hallway.
As Heyman asked questions, police officers "grabbed him by the scruff of the neck" and led him away, said witness Kristen O'Sullivan, who was among a small group in the hallway hoping to talk to Price about the health care overhaul.
The American Civil Liberties Union's West Virginia chapter had called Heyman's arrest "a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press."
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.
Heyman said he was grateful for an outpouring of support.
"The intense response to my arrest gives me confidence that people will defend the free press, because they believe in it," he said.