A local police department in Kansas did something extraordinary on Friday: It effectively stopped a newspaper from printing the news. The Marion Police Department raided the offices of the Marion County Record, which serves a community of fewer than 2,000 people, and the home of its owner and publisher at the end of last week.
According to the Record, which published an unbylined article about the searches on its website over the week, cops seized the newspaper’s computers and servers, the personal cell phones of staff members, and what the newspaper described as “other equipment unrelated to the scope of their search.” While the officers obtained a warrant for the search from a local judge, there are countless questions swirling around about what, if anything, justified such an outsized reaction from law enforcement.
The story took a tragic turn on Saturday when the Record reported that stress from the raid had contributed to the death of the paper’s owner. “Stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after illegal police raids on her home and the Marion County Record newspaper office Friday, 98-year-old newspaper co-owner Joan Meyer, otherwise in good health for her age, collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home,” the paper reported. The article claimed that she had not been able to eat or sleep due to her distress after the Friday raid.
Naturally, in America, reporters are not above the law. But they and their publishers are protected at all times by the First Amendment and its guarantees of a free press. Local newspapers are especially important as the metaphorical nerve system of any healthy community. If it turns out that this raid’s justifications do not hold up to scrutiny, then state and federal officials should drop the hammer on the police department for what would be nothing less than an attack on American democracy.
And initial signs don’t offer much hope that this show of force truly served the public interest. The raid’s origins, according to the Record, came from a dispute between the newspaper, local officials, and a local business owner. Kari Newell, who owns a restaurant in Marion, reportedly accused Marion Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel of inappropriately accessing records about her drunk-driving conviction in 2008 during a town council meeting last Monday. That prior conviction could have made it more difficult for Newell to obtain a liquor license in the town.
According to the Record, Newell also accused the newspaper of illegally obtaining information about the conviction. The newspaper denied that charge in its unbylined article over the weekend. “The Record did not seek out the information,” it reported. “Rather, it was provided by a source who sent it to the newspaper via social media and also sent it to Herbel. After attempting to verify that the information was accurate and had been obtained, as the source had claimed, from a public website, the Record decided not to publish it.”
The Record also claimed that one of its reporters attempted to verify the information by checking an unidentified state website, which involved giving her name and clicking on a consent form “verifying that she did not plan to disseminate the information—because, in fact, she did not plan to and did not do so.” It reported that Newell also drove without a license after it was suspended because of her 2008 conviction. As part of its reporting, the Record said it looked into whether local police knew that Newell didn’t have a valid driver’s license and let her off for driving without a license nonetheless.
How this dispute led to a police search on Friday is unclear. Newell’s staff had previously kicked out Record reporters from a meet-and-greet event held by Representative Jake LaTurner, according to The Kansas Reflector. “Journalists have become the dirty politicians of today, twisting narrative for bias[ed] agendas, full of muddied half-truths,” Newell wrote on Facebook, according to an excerpt posted by the Reflector. “We rarely get facts that aren’t baited with misleading insinuations.” The Record published an article responding to Newell’s allegations on Thursday.
On Friday morning, cops showed up at the paper’s offices and provided a two-page search warrant that alleged, according to the newspaper, that officers believed that “identity theft” and “unlawful computer acts” had been committed in relation to Newell’s information. Further details on the criminal investigation itself are scarce. Law enforcement officials are supposed to provide an affidavit to a local magistrate judge to establish probable cause. The Record said it sought to obtain that affidavit from the local district court, which “issued a signed statement saying no affidavit was on file.”
State and local police officials are keeping largely mum about the raid as well. Gideon Cody, Marion’s chief of police, told The New York Times that “when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated.” The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said in a statement to the Reflector that it “began an investigation into allegations of criminal wrongdoing” at the local police department’s request last Tuesday and that the investigation was “ongoing.” The Record said it did not know when it would get its computers and servers back from the police.
News of the raid provoked a sharp backlash from other Kansas publications and from national press freedom organizations. “We could express our outrage at what is happening here,” The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star said in a joint editorial on Monday. “But we probably couldn’t say it any better than the 98-year-old Joan Meyer, a newspaperwoman since 1953: ‘These are Hitler tactics and something has to be done.’” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit press freedom group, published a letter condemning the raid on behalf of itself and at least 30 other national news outlets.
“Based on public reporting, the search warrant that has been published online, and your public statements to the press, there appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search—particularly when other investigative steps may have been available—and we are concerned that it may have violated federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to conduct newsroom searches,” the organization said. “We urge you to immediately return the seized material to the Record, to purge any records that may already have been accessed, and to initiate a full independent and transparent review of your department’s actions.”
The RCFP noted in its letter that the police department’s actions also appear to have violated federal law. Under the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, it is unlawful for police to seize journalist work products or documentary materials. Under court precedents, that protection applies even if the material was itself based on unlawfully obtained information, so long as the newspaper and its journalists did not break the law themselves to obtain it. For that reason, it is extraordinarily rare for law enforcement agencies at any level of government to raid a newspaper’s offices.
“Our first priority is to be able to publish next week, but we also want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today,” Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s publisher, said in a statement to the Record over the weekend. “We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law.” According to local news outlets, this would likely involve a federal civil rights lawsuit against the department.
That should be the floor for any possible response. If the raid is truly as unwarranted as the Record claims, then state and local leaders should consider whether the Marion Police Department should exist in its current form and with its current leadership. The Justice Department in Washington, D.C., should also look into whether federal civil rights laws that address local officials who violate constitutional rights might apply in this situation. American democracy cannot survive if local police get to decide when newspapers can or can’t publish, and our elected officials should act accordingly.
This article originally misstated the title of the Marion County Record and the day of Joan Meyer’s death.