The First Amendment guarantees a free press. The United States’ second president, John Adams, said, “the liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state.” Even Thomas Jefferson, who had a quarrelsome relationship with the press said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press.”
Contrast those statements with President Trump’s tweet calling the media “the enemy of the people.” Beyond words, candidate Trump revoked the press privileges of outlets he felt were giving him unfavorable coverage – a trend that President Trump has continued. Reporters have been the victims of physical violence at the hands of Trump’s security and the target of wholly inappropriate mockery. Reporters have been arrested and charged with felonies for covering protests.
So, perhaps, it should come as no surprise when a reporter trying to ask a legitimate question of President Trump’s Cabinet gets arrested. That’s exactly what happened to Dan Heyman, a veteran reporter with Public New Services, when he pressed Department of Health and Human Services SecretaryTom Price and Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway whether domestic violence was considered a preexisting condition under Trumpcare during a visit to the West Virginia Capitol.
In the criminal complaint it was alleged that Mr. Heyman was “causing a disturbance by yelling questions.” He was charged with “willful disruption of governmental processes.” Mr. Heyman was taken to jail and was only released when his employer posted the $5,000 bond. He is still awaiting a preliminary hearing.
Make no mistake – this is not normal. And this is not okay.
The media is tasked with holding our public officials accountable for the things they say and do. It is often only through diligent investigation that the public learns of wrong-doing by elected officials. It is the press that presents all the facts in complex policy arguments to the public. And it is the press that can challenge public officials when they make claims about policies that are not supported by the facts.
But all of this can only happen if the press is allowed to challenge public officials. It only happens if they can be loud and persistent. It only happens if they have access to our public officials. And it only happens if individuals can talk to the press with assurances of anonymity. This is why we have such robust protections for the press.
If called upon the ACLU of West Virginia is prepared to defend Mr. Heyman against the unconstitutional charges filed against him. But more broadly, the ACLU will continue to stand and defend the rights of the press wherever they are challenged. Our founders understood how important a free and independent press is. And if our current President does not, we’ll see him in court.