FREEDOM OF PRESS - Dozens of U.S. news organizations on Sunday condemned last week's raid by Kansas police on a local newspaper and publisher's home in what critics called an unconstitutional search they say contributed to the death of the paper's co-owner.
"On August 11, 2023, law enforcement officers with the Marion Police Department (MPD) executed a search warrant at the Marion County Record's newsroom and at its publisher's home, and seized the Record's electronic news gathering equipment, work product, and documentary material," The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) wrote in a letter to Marion, Kansas Police Chief Gideon Cody signed by 34 major U.S. news organizations, including The Associated Press, CBS News, Gannett, McClatchy, NBCUniversal News Group, The New York Times,Reuters, and The Washington Post.
"Based on the reporting so far, the police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency."
The raid—which was executed by five MPD officers and two county sheriff's deputies—came as the Record was investigating sexual misconduct allegations against Cody.
"I may be paranoid that this has anything to do with it, but when people come and seize your computer, you tend to be a little paranoid," Record publisher Eric Meyer told The Handbasket publisher Marisa Kabas in an interview Saturday.
Kari Newell, a politically connected restauranteur who has feuded with the paper, is also believed to have played a role; the Record had recently received a tip about her driver's license being suspended after a 2008 DUI conviction but ultimately decided not to run the story. Newell has confirmed her DUI conviction and has admitted that she continued driving even after her license was suspended.
According to the Record, the raid contributed to the death of 98-year-old co-owner Joan Meyer, who was "otherwise in good health for her age."
Meyer—who the paper said "tearfully watched during the raid" and accused the police of "Hitler tactics"—was "stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief" and "collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home."
The RCFP letter argues that "newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech by the press and the public."
On Saturday, MPD published a statement on Facebook acknowledging that the federal Privacy Protection Act "does protect journalists from most searches of newsrooms by federal and state law enforcement officials" and "requires police to use subpoenas, rather than search warrants, to search the premises of journalists."
However, the post notes that the law grants an exception when journalists "themselves are suspects in the offense that is the subject of the search."
The warrant, which was signed by 8th Judicial District Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, authorized a search for evidence of identity theft and criminal use of a computer.
Eric Meyer, who is Joan Meyer's son, told the Kansas Reflector on Friday that "basically, all the law enforcement officers on duty in Marion County, Kansas, descended on our offices today and seized our server and computers and personal cellphones of staff members all because of a story we didn't publish."
According to the RCFP letter, "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."
"Your department's seizure of this equipment has substantially interfered with the Record's First Amendment-protected news gathering in this instance, and the department's actions risk chilling the free flow of information in the public interest more broadly, including by dissuading sources from speaking to the Record and other Kansas news media in the future," the letter continues.
"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 signers added.
Press freedom and civil liberties groups have also condemned the raid.
"Based on the reporting so far, the police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency," Freedom of the Press Foundation advocacy director Seth Stern said in a statement. "Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves."
ACLU of Kansas legal director Sharon Brett said that this "seems like one of the most aggressive police raids of a news organization or entity in quite some time" and "quite an alarming abuse of power."
On Monday, the board of the Society of Professional Journalists unanimously voted to authorize $20,000 to cover the Record's legal costs, according to the Kansas Reflector. Both Meyer and Newell said they are considering lawsuits.
(Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this story was first published.)