A reporter has been arrested for pressing Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to say whether or not the Trump health care bill would make it harder for domestic violence survivors to obtain insurance.
West Virginia police arrested Dan Heyman at the state capitol Tuesday as he walked with Price and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, holding a recorder out and asking Price repeatedly about claims that insurers could refuse to serve survivors of familial abuse. That claim is based on inference from the bill’s provision allowing states to abandon consumer protections from Obamacare with federal permission.
Heyman had sought out Price on his way into the capitol.
“At some point, I think [they] decided I was too persistent in asking this question and trying to do my job, so they arrested me,” Heyman told West Virginia Metro News. Heyman was later charged with “willful disruption of a governmental process,” according to the news service.
A police report justifying the charge said the reporter “was aggressively breaching the Secret Service agents” and “causing a disturbance by yelling questions at Ms. Conway and Secretary Price,” the West Virginia Metro News reported. Heyman was only released after someone from his news agency posted a $5,000 bond. He faces a $100 fine and up to six months in jail under state law.
If yelling questions at an HHS secretary we're a crime, four presidents could've imprisoned me. They didn't, because it isn't. https://t.co/jgUlIbQzAs
— Jeffrey Young (@JeffYoung) May 10, 2017
Heyman’s arrest is the most dramatic recent illustration of the chilling effect President Donald Trump’s election has had on the news business, but it is not the first.
The traveling press corps who followed Trump’s campaign were frequently turned into a side show at his rallies, kept inside a tight and prominently placed cordon where Trump himself would typically point them out as enemies to his supporters. He also occasionally remarked that America should “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue reporters who enjoy First Amendment protections.
In one high-profile incident, a senior campaign aide grabbed a reporter by the arm hard enough to leave bruises — an incident the campaign denied despite video evidence. Trump’s political persona frequently relies on cherry-picking media reports he likes and deeming all others “fake news.”
But journalists can handle being presented as a political enemy to the public. The use of state power to physically detain them and then pursue criminal penalties against them for doing their jobs is something different.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions wouldn’t rule out the idea of using cops and prosecutors to go after the press back in January. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked him to commit to “not put reporters in jail for doing their jobs” during his confirmation hearing, and he responded that “I’m not sure.” Subsequent reports that Sessions is considering criminal charges against Wikileaks revived deep concerns about press freedom under Trump.
Both Sessions’ exchange with Klobuchar and the reports of a potential Wikileaks prosecution primarily relate to issues of leaked information and source protection. Heyman’s detention and misdemeanor charge are obviously a different beast, pertaining to reporters’ physical and verbal conduct around the public officials they cover.
Heyman is not the first journalist to experience such rough handling by the legal system in the newly dawned Trump era. Several journalists were detained and charged with felony rioting at a mass roundup in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day. Their charges were eventually dropped.
But Heyman’s case is very different even from that mass-arrest sweep. He was solo, in a public building, repeatedly asking a public official for an answer on a matter of some controversy and great public interest.
Republicans and some reporters have scoffed at the idea that Trumpcare would treat domestic violence and rape as pre-existing conditions because the bill does not explicitly do so. But it is not difficult to infer that by allowing states to seek waivers to dump the most expensive health care patients into high-risk pools rather than requiring insurers to cover them at the same price as everyone else, those who suffer ongoing psychological or physiological effects from trauma could quickly be priced out of insurance coverage.
Price may not want to answer questions like Heyman’s. He may not appreciate being bird-dogged by a reporter rather than addressing the media through the controlled environment of a press conference.
But it’s hard to reconcile Heyman’s status as a member of the constitutionally-protected free press with the West Virginia capitol police’s decision that “yelling questions at” public officials in a hallway constitutes an illegal “willful disruption of governmental processes.”
Price addressed the West Virginia episode the following day in New Hampshire. The secretary “commended police in West Virginia for ‘doing what they thought was appropriate’,” according to health care news site STAT.
Price did not say whether or not he shared the officers’ view of the propriety of Heyman’s arrest. “That’s not my decision to make,” he said.
“That gentleman was not in a press conference,” Price said.