Prosecutors dropped a charge against a journalist who was arrested at the state Capitol when peppering Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price with questions.
Dan Heyman, of Public News Service, and other representatives from his organization announced the news in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
“I’m pleased to say that the county charges against me have been dismissed,” Heyman said. “Basically the prosecutor, as I understand it, said that I did not commit a crime, that what I did did not constitute a crime, which is always what I had felt, and I always felt confident that once due process got underway, that I would be found not to have committed a crime.”
Several attorneys who assisted Heyman spoke on his behalf on the call as well.
Heyman said he was trying to ask Price a question regarding whether a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act would have counted being a victim of domestic violence as a pre-existing condition, which could boost insurance rates.
After repeating his question and holding out his phone to record the response, Capitol Police handcuffed and arrested Heyman. Authorities went on to charge him with the willful disruption of a governmental process.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail filed a public records request for security footage of the event. The Division of Protective Services denied the request.
Heyman said he did not know Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, was among the gaggle of politicians surrounding Price. He has said in the past he did not know some of the men around them were part of a security detail.
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.
“We took a look at the videotapes, and there was an audio recording added to it by his defense attorneys, we took a look at the disruption of a governmental process statute, and it didn’t really seem to fit,” he said. “I think that he may have been a bit aggressive in his asking of questions to Secretary Price, but our opinion was that it didn’t violate any criminal statutes.”
Beyond the charges against him, Heyman said the widespread support he received from news outlets, media observers and press associations provided him a lift throughout the process on the outlook of a free press in the U.S.
“It’s always good to see that people really support a free press, and the asking of questions of public officials,” he said. “When there’s a tug of war between folks who want to rein in the press, the media, and the ability of reporters like myself to do our jobs, when that’s in tension, I’m always glad to see that people are willing to speak up for the reporting profession.”
“In this country, we really have a long tradition of an aggressive, independent press, and people like that, they believe in it. They believe in reporters doing their jobs.”
The year has provided tests of freedom of the press, both in the U.S. and abroad.
In June, Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mt., pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge for “body slamming” Ben Jacobs, a journalist with The Guardian, on the eve of a special election.
Thus far in 2017, 24 journalists have been killed on the job around the world, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4814 or @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.