CHARLESTON, West Virginia – For someone like me who is constantly checking email on my phone, one odd thing about getting put in jail is how suddenly you’re almost totally cut off.
I was arrested last week after asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question about the American Health Care Act while he walked toward a meeting in the West Virginia State Capitol. He didn’t respond, so I asked a few more times, holding my phone out to record the reply he didn’t make. The criminal complaint accused me of a misdemeanor – “willful disruption of governmental processes” – and said I was “aggressively breaching the secret service agents.”
I wasn’t. I went to the Capitol to do my job and ask a question – not looking for trouble or intending to disrupt some state process. But for asking a question, the Capitol police took my phone, handcuffed me, fingerprinted me and sent me off in an orange jumpsuit. From then until I was released from jail seven hours later, I had no idea my arrest had drawn any attention. So first thing, I called my editor and apologized for causing trouble.
She might have laughed, ruefully. I don’t remember. But I was surprised to be arrested and even more surprised by what has turned out to be an explosion of public interest and support.
The day after my arrest, Price commended the police and pointed out that I wasn’t asking my question as part of a news conference. I would have preferred to go to a news conference – ask my one question, sit down and shut up. But Price, like many of the other public officials supporting the AHCA, has been tightly restricting press and public access when he might be asked about health care.
That day at the Capitol, Price attended a meeting – part of a “listening tour” on the opioid crisis – that was closed to the public despite state officials’ requests to open it up. After the meeting, Price answered four questions. His agency has yet to respond to an email asking about the issues I’m covering. (A few days later, a radio interviewer asked Price if he felt I had been “menacing,” and Price said I wasn’t. He still said he felt the police had done “a stellar job.”)
The specific question I had was how the AHCA would affect victims of domestic violence. It’s an important issue, and not a simple one: Before the Affordable Care Act, battered women ran the risk of losing their health insurance if insurers considered domestic violence, or the damage it causes, a pre-existing condition. The AHCA would allow insurers to get waivers from requirements that they charge people the same price whether they have pre-existing conditions or not, so how domestic violence would be treated under a new law matters. State laws on the matter vary, and there is also the risk that someone might suffer an interruption of coverage and thus incur much higher premiums without knowing it by the very act of leaving an abusive relationship.
Since my arrest, I’ve heard from several women thankful that I’m covering the issue, including one West Virginian who seemed deeply worried about losing health insurance for herself and her children. And she said she’s furious that I was in jail and her abusive ex-husband isn’t.
As soon as this furor dies down, I hope to finish the story. But I wasn’t calling out to Price to score points – I was looking for answers about how the policy he was promoting would affect people in West Virginia and across the nation.
I was wearing my press pass and told authorities I was a reporter. If Price had answered my question, I would have written a fairly technical story distributed only in West Virginia. Or if the police officer had simply pulled me aside until Price and his entourage had passed but not taken me into custody, nothing would have come of it.
Instead, the story of my arrest has been national news for a week, and many people are treating me as a hero. I don’t think I deserve all that. It’s true that I was arrested for doing something journalists do every day, shouting out a question to a public official walking down a hallway, but there are reporters who suffer a lot more just for being reporters. Still, I’ve been amazed by the supportive comments I’ve gotten on social media, as well as unsolicited offers of money or help.
Why has my case resonated so widely? I think part of the reason is because it seems to confirm people’s worst fears about the erosion of a free press. They see public access closed down and journalists held in contempt and antipathy.
So when they see that a reporter has been arrested in the regular process of covering a news story, they get angry. They feel that an open, aggressive and honest press is almost sacred – a vital guardian of our freedoms. And they’re right: Asking questions shouldn’t get you put in an orange jumpsuit.
Dan Heyman is a reporter for the Public News Service in Charleston, West Virginia.
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