There was good news regarding freedom of the press in the decision last week by officials in Kanawha County, West Virginia, not to prosecute charges against a reporter who was arrested after he aggressively questioned Tom Price, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Matt Stevens wrote in the Sept. 6 New York Times that Dan Heyman’s legal team negotiated with the county prosecutor’s office to come to the conclusion about the May 9 arrest.
Heyman, a reporter for the Public News Service, who was obviously “very relieved” by the development, expressed the sentiment felt by many with this comment to the Times:
“Facing six months of jail time for asking a question as a journalist was pretty troubling.”
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Some rightly note that freedom of the press is not a freedom to harass. And certainly public officials are under more scrutiny and subject to more vocal criticism than ever in today’s tense political environment. With that, we can understand why the security detail surrounding Price decided to detain Heyman, especially considering that, in addition to “yelling questions,” he had at one point “reached over some of the staff and security members surrounding Mr. Price,” as Stevens reported.
But knowing that he didn’t cause any harm and that the incident ended without any further trouble, filing charges was going too far. So was the fact that Heyman spent eight hours in jail awaiting release on bail.
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We are fortunate to have a good working relationship with most local, county and state officials we deal with in these parts, though few are likely under the kind of pressure Price is, especially considering the topic Heyman was raising — health care legislation.
But access to public officials, after all, isn’t simply a matter for the media. A decision to not prosecute Dan Heyman was a victory for him, the press and, importantly, the public at large.
As Heyman himself said, “The intense response to my arrest gives me confidence that people will defend the free press, because they believe in it.”