MAY 16, 2017 — The West Virginia Capitol Police purport to be a bona fide law-enforcement agency. But there’s scant evidence of that. In arresting reporter Dan Heyman last week — his offense was asking questions — they look more like the security services in repressive regimes.
The political polarization of America has helped to erode Americans’ trust of the media. President Donald Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Fourth Estate has been a big contributing factor.
Even so, the behavior of the West Virginia Capitol Police was outrageous. Heyman was manhandled, arrested, locked up for eight hours and charged with a misdemeanor count of “willful disruption of governmental processes” because he sidled up to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in the capitol hallway and — gasp! — asked him questions. The criminal complaint accuses Heyman of trying to breach security and “causing a disturbance by yelling questions.”
Heyman works for Public News Service, which describes itself as having operations in 36 states with support from “nonprofit organizations, foundations, individuals and businesses for social responsibility.” When he got out of the slammer, Heyman was flabbergasted. “This is my job, this is what I’m supposed to do,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying. He’s absolutely right.
Reporters routinely trail behind or walk alongside public officials as they move from one location or event to the next and take the opportunity to ask questions. It must happen hundreds of times each day on Capitol Hill and in statehouses, city halls and courthouses across America. Reporters anticipate the face time; public officials expect it and nearly always act civilly, even if they decline to answer the questions posed to them.
Heyman was persistent in asking a non-responsive Price — accompanied by White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on a visit to Charleston to discuss the opioid crisis — whether domestic violence would be a pre-existing condition under the GOP health care plan. But there was nothing out of the ordinary, let alone illegal, about his conduct. Did the West Virginia Capitol Police overreact or did they want to spare Price further questioning? They were wrong either way.
The charges should be dropped, the officers involved disciplined and Heyman given an apology. However, there’s been nothing but silence so far from West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who should have immediately rebuked the capitol police. It’s time he lived up to his name.
Price could have, and should have, intervened to stop Heyman’s arrest. He’s mostly dodged questions about the incident, except to say the police “did what they felt was appropriate.”
The police did nothing appropriate here. As the police detained him, according to a New York Times account, Heyman asked: “So the Capitol of the state of West Virginia is no longer a public space?” That, like his other questions, hasn’t yet been answered.