The entire police department of a small town in Kansas recently raided the office of a local newspaper and the home of its publisher, resulting in the seizure of computers, cell phones, and other reporting materials. This action effectively shut down the publication. Tragically, the 98-year-old co-owner of the weekly newspaper collapsed and died the following day, presumably due to the overwhelming stress caused by the incident.
Eric Meyer, the publisher, expressed that the Marion Police Department’s raid on August 11 took away “everything we have.” This incident is likely to have a chilling effect on the newspaper’s ability to publish and hamper the public’s ability to communicate with its reporters, according to Meyer.
Seth Stern, the director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation, stated that based on the available information, this police raid may have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency. He further added that everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.
The raid was prompted by a series of stories the newspaper published about a restaurant owner who had excluded reporters from a meeting with Republican US Rep Jake LaTurner. The newspaper received information about the restaurant owner’s drunk driving record from a source and journalists attempted to verify it through government records. However, the newspaper ultimately decided not to publish anything. In response, the restaurant owner, KarI Newell, falsely accused the newspaper of illegally obtaining sensitive documents about her. This compelled the newspaper to publish a story setting the record straight.
The newspaper was also conducting an active investigation into Gideon Cody, Marion’s chief of police, following allegations of sexual misconduct and retirement from a previous job to avoid punishment.
Officers executed a search warrant signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar. The warrant allowed them to seize phones, software, items with passwords, and all correspondence and documents related to Kari Newell. Chief Cody allegedly dislocated a reporter’s finger during the raid.
Furthermore, officers reportedly photographed personal financial statements and seized personal items, including a smart speaker used by Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner, to ask for assistance. Joan Meyer expressed her distress, referring to the raid and its tactics as “Hitler tactics.”
The incident has been condemned by Emily Bradbury, the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, who stated that it not only infringes upon journalists’ rights, but also goes against the foundations of democracy and the public’s right to know. The Radio Television Digital News Association and PEN America also demanded an explanation from the police, with PEN America highlighting that such interference with news reporting is unacceptable in a democracy and likely violates federal law.
The Marion County Record, the affected newspaper, plans to file a federal lawsuit, seeking maximum sanctions under the law. This incident adds to the alarming number of attacks on journalists and press freedom recorded by the Press Freedom Tracker in the past year. It is seen as another example of law enforcement treating the press in a manner associated with authoritarian regimes, amplified by the pervasive anti-press rhetoric in the country.
In conclusion, the raid on the newspaper’s office and the subsequent death of its co-owner have raised concerns about press freedom and the right to information in the United States. The incident has garnered attention, with organizations and individuals demanding accountability and protection for journalists as they carry out their essential work.