Errol Louis: I've been in journalism since my teen years, and what Dan Heyman did is how members of a free press do their job
Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Journalism, already under attack by the Trump administration, became a literal target in West Virginia when on Tuesday, a reporter named Dan Heyman of Public News Service was arrested at the state Capitol while trying to ask a pointed question of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, who was visiting with White House adviser Kellyanne Conway – and who later commended the police for taking that action.
No matter which way you lean politically, this story should concern you. Every unwarranted attack on members of the press is a reckless step away from government accountability.
For months on the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump would take time during rallies to call members of the press “scum” and urge crowds to jeer at them, lambasting them as “illegitimate,” “horrible people,” and so on.
Now Trump’s Cabinet is spreading his toxic example into the heartland. Price, who has been leading the charge for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, entered the West Virginia capital surrounded by a retinue of Secret Service officers, and tried to sweep past Heyman, without answering his question.
Heyman then did what good reporters do: he got as close as possible, held up a recorder and shouted the question again.
For the record, it was a pretty good question. Heyman wanted to know if, under the health care law championed by Secretary Price, being a victim of domestic violence would count as a pre-existing condition that might not be covered by the administration’s slimmed-down version of insurance.
“Do you think that’s right or not, secretary?” Heyman asked, according to sections of the recording he made and shared with the Washington Post. “You refuse to answer? Tell me ‘no comment.’”
I’ve been in journalism since my teen years, and that’s how members of a free press do their job. For his trouble, Heyman – who had already been screened by security and was wearing a press pass – was taken away in handcuffs by capital police, held in custody for hours and only freed when Public News Service posted $5,000 bail.
He is charged with willful disruption of government processes, and could face up to six months in jail if convicted. The criminal complaint against him claims Heyman “was causing a disturbance by yelling questions at Ms. Conway and Secretary Price.”
It is axiomatic in a free society that men with guns do not get to put journalists in handcuffs for asking questions. Perhaps members of the West Virginia Capitol Police need a refresher course in the Constitution, which expressly forbids government from abridging the freedom of the press.
The ACLU of West Virginia said in a statement, “Those who don’t want transparency in the literal halls of government have no business putting themselves in the political spotlight.” They are demanding that the charges against Heyman be dropped immediately. And they are right. Prosecutors should do so immediately, before the inevitable protests, editorials and lawsuits show up on their doorstep.
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This won’t be the last time the Trump administration gets challenged over its plans to curtail health coverage. According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, at least 184,000 state residents – mostly low-wage workers – could lose health insurance coverage, and 800,000 people with pre-existing conditions would be at risk.
These people, and the free press that serves them, have every right to demand answers to their questions, no matter how inconvenient or impertinent the President and his cabinet secretaries may find the queries. And no amount of insults from the Oval Office will change that.