September 6, 2017 / 11:19 PM / 3 months ago

Prosecutors drop charges against reporter who questioned U.S. health secretary

(Reuters) - West Virginia prosecutors dropped charges on Wednesday against a reporter who was arrested after peppering U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price with healthcare policy questions while following him down a hallway at the state capitol.

Kanawha County prosecutors said in a joint statement with Public News Service that the nonprofit news organization’s reporter, Dan Heyman, broke no laws in May.

“The state has determined, after a careful review of the facts, that Mr. Heyman’s conduct, while it may have been aggressive journalism, was not unlawful and did not violate the law with which he was charged,” the statement said.

Heyman was arrested and jailed for willful disruption of state government processes. Police said he repeatedly pressed Price with questions during a visit to the statehouse in Charleston along with White House advisor Kellyanne Conway.

Price’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Heyman, who was jailed and later released after posting a $5,000 bond, said he was relieved at the outcome.

“Facing six months of jail time for asking a question as a journalist was pretty troubling,” he said in a separate statement released by Public News Service on Wednesday. “I don’t want my arrest to have a chilling effect on other reporters because we all need to keep asking the tough questions of elected officials.”

A criminal complaint filed against Heyman accused him of “yelling questions” at Price and Conway and “aggressively breaching secret service agents to the point where the agents were forced to remove him a couple of times.”

The arrest drew condemnation from civil rights and journalists’ rights groups, who said Heyman was merely performing his constitutionally protected duties.

Heyman said at a press conference after his arrest in May that he had asked Price if domestic abuse would be a considered a pre-exiting condition under a healthcare bill that had just been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

At the time of his arrest, Heyman previously said he had been wearing a press badge and had not been warned by security guards or police that he was breaking the law.

Jamie Lynn Crofts, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s West Virginia chapter, lauded the prosecutors decision in a statement on the group’s website.

“In the United States of America, we do not arrest reporters and charge them with crimes for questioning public officials,” Crofts said. “A free and independent press is a cornerstone of any democracy.”

Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; editing by Diane Craft

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