Arresting a Reporter for Asking Questions Is an Unacceptable Assault on the First Amendment

Journalist Dan Heyman addresses the press with his attorney following his release.

A reporter in West Virginia was arrested Tuesday night for literally doing his job.

Dan Heyman, a veteran reporter with Public News Service, was covering a visit to the state capitol by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. As they walked through the building, Heyman pressed the two on whether domestic violence would be considered a preexisting condition under the American Health Care Act passed by the House last week.

Suddenly, he was pulled aside by Capitol police, handcuffed, and hauled off to jail. He was charged with a misdemeanor for “willful disruption of governmental processes” and only released when his employer posted a $5,000 bond. He is still awaiting a preliminary hearing.

“At some point I think they decided I was just too persistent in asking this question and trying to do my job, and they arrested me,” Heyman said after he was released.

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A criminal complaint alleges that Heyman was “causing a disturbance by yelling questions.” What it doesn’t note was that Heyman was actually targeted for reporting on matters critical to the public interest — not in a closed meeting or the inside of a working office, but in the hallways of a government building.

The law under which Heyman was charged can carry a fine of up to $100 and a jail sentence of up to six months.

At a time of eroding trust in our government institutions, an independent free press is more critical than ever to ensure that the people running our country are held to account. This makes Heyman’s arrest all the more distressing.

What happened in West Virginia didn’t happen in a vacuum. The president has been attempting to undermine the press on a regular basis and resists transparency at every turn. He has smeared the media as “the enemy of the people.” On the campaign trail, he revoked the credentials of some of the most prestigious news outlets in the country because he didn’t like their coverage. Reporters have been the victims of physical violence and the target of mockery. Others have been arrested and charged with felonies for covering protests.

Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that a reporter was arrested for trying to ask a question to a member of Trump’s cabinet. But it can never be accepted as normal.

In the 1971 Supreme Court ruling on the famous Pentagon Papers case, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” Indeed, when our public representatives — whether the Trump administration or the West Virginia Capitol police — forget that they work for us, we need journalists to remind them. Without a free press, public officials have a much easier time evading accountability, shielding misconduct, and pushing through dangerous policies without public scrutiny. Even Thomas Jefferson, who had a quarrelsome relationship with the press, knew that “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press.”

We need journalists to be able to challenge and question public officials, loudly and persistently. For the government to stand in the way is a frontal assault on the First Amendment and the functioning of our democracy. Those who don’t want transparency in the literal halls of government have no business putting themselves in the political spotlight.

If our elected officials insist on continuing to violate one of our country’s core values, we will see them in court — in defense of Dan Heyman and of any other journalist serving the public’s right to know.

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Patriotic Guard

Remember, we only live once. And NO ONE IS BULLETPROOF. Better to live and die a shining beacon of freedom, then cower and die as nameless, powerless cattle.

Cathryn Lea

Please sue Donald Trump's secretaries (Price, Sessions) who have reporters arrested who ask questions. We should be having free speech in this country.

Dr. Vali

The attack on the media (and the rest of us) is more disturbing daily. I appreciate that the ACLU will stand up to the insanity. Thank you for all of us members and future members.

Marcus Blum, We...

Unlawful arrest for the freedom of press. The U.S. Government under President Trump who tampers the First Admendment of the United States Constitution can bring the next world war. The civil war in the United States of America.

Anonymous

Your absolutely correct. A civil war in any country brings in outsiders looking to exploit the instability.

Michael

Yes freedom of the press is very important. But what happens when the press becomes an activist; refusing to report on what it deems 'not politically correct'? For example, they will not report assaults by transpeople in the MSM. But say anything anti -transgender and you will be on the news at 10:00.

Margaret

Thank you Michael! Love how they pick and choose which issues they deem important when our issues don't get addressed at all!!

Anonymous

lol what??? What percentage of people even count as being transgender? And then what percentage of those people are violent and looking for trouble, versus those that just want to live life without calling much or any extra attention to themselves?

What I'm saying is, the fraction of a fraction of a fraction of people who are 1) transgender, and 2) committing violent crimes, and 3) getting arrested and prosecuted for it... must be so infinitesimally small, that there is virtually nothing to report in that regard, and would therefor require no cover up.

But since you cite "the MSM" then I suppose you must have some totally-legit non-mainstream news source that ALSO has verifiable, documented facts to back up your accusation.

lol just kidding, of course you don't.

Margaret

Why is this news and you ignored the egregious amount of election fraud which occurred during the 2016 Democratic Primary. Several attempts to reach out for your assistance fell on deaf ears! Smacks of corporatist collusion to me, ACLU!!

Anonymous

Don't forget Obama denied more FOIA requests than any other President. He gagged the press and attacked the press, particularly in his early years too. The only difference is Trump has been more forthright, albeit crudely, in his attacks.

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