Raid on Kansas Newspaper Alarms Media, Press Freedom Groups

Behavior that should not be tolerated

Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer speaks with reporters on August 14, 2023, about the aftermath of a police raid on his newspaper’s office and his home in Marion County, Kansas. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

By Katherine Jacobsen (Committee to Protect Journalists)

HAVANA TIMES – A police raid on a small-town Kansas newspaper, the Marion County Record, has sent shockwaves through the local community and raised national alarm among press freedom and civil rights groups about its potential to undermine press freedom in the United States.

The search warrant, which was signed on Friday and alleges identity theft and unlawful use of a computer, was related to a dispute between the newspaper and a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell, who accused the newspaper of invading her privacy and illegally accessing information about her and her driving record.

According to the newspaper and other news reports, publisher Eric Meyer said Newell’s complaints were untrue and he believes the newspaper’s aggressive coverage of local politics and issues played a role in prompting the raid.

During the search of the Record’s offices, police seized reporters’ personal cellphones, computers, the newspaper’s file server, decades of reporting material, and other equipment the paper said was outside the scope of the search warrant. Police also searched Meyer’s home and went through his personal bank statements. Joan Meyer, Meyer’s 98-year-old mother who co-owned the publication, collapsed and died Saturday afternoon following the searches; the Marion County Record reported that she was “overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief” over the incidents.

“Our first priority is to be able to publish next week,” Meyer said in an article on the Marion Record’s website. “But we also want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today. We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law.”

The police action raised concerns among press freedom groups — including CPJ – and national news organizations about the possible violation of federal law limiting local law enforcement’s ability to search newsrooms.

Copies of the Marion County Record are displayed in the newspaper’s office on August 13, 2023, two days after police raided the newsroom and seized computers and cell phones. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

In a letter sent to Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody on Sunday, attorneys for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noted that, “under any circumstances, the raid and seizure appeared overbroad and unduly intrusive.” The letter was signed by CPJ along with more than 30 media outlets.

The use of search warrants against journalists remains rare in the United States, according to statistics maintained by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a CPJ partner. In 2019, San Francisco law enforcement and federal agents seized unreported source material from the home office of freelance video reporter Brian Carmody, who eventually won a settlement against the FBI.

Police Chief Cody told The Associated Press via email that, while federal law usually requires a subpoena — not just a search warrant — to raid a newsroom, there is an exception “when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.” The report said that Cody did not provide further information about what the wrongdoing was.

Marion County police and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation did not immediately respond to CPJ’s emails and phone calls requesting comment.

To better understand the local context of the raid, CPJ spoke by phone with Sherman Smith, the editor in chief of the Kansas Reflector, a non-profit news website focused on Kansas politics. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sherman Smith, editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. ‘We can’t take our freedoms for granted.’ (Photo courtesy Sherman Smith)

Why do you think that law enforcement used this dragnet, and highly questionable, approach? Isn’t there a state shield law in Kansas?

We really need the court to release the affidavit that supports the search warrant to get more clarity about why they thought this was necessary.

The exception to Kansas’ state shield law is only in matters of national security, and I think we can all agree that this does not rise to that level.

From the police statement on their Facebook page, they believed that this conduct [of the Marion County Record] amounted to identity theft and justified the raid. And I think the media everywhere would simply say they are wrong. If there were other motivations [they] are not exactly clear to me right now.

This is a small town of about 2,000 people, and so there is rampant potential for conflicts of interest with everybody involved. There’s a lot of small-town drama that we haven’t all clearly unpacked yet. Hopefully the affidavit will shine a light on that.

What message does this send to journalists working in Kansas?

I think it has this chilling effect on journalists in Kansas. If law enforcement is able to get away with this– and they appear now to have the support of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation– that means there’s open season on journalists everywhere in Kansas.

Police and prosecutors always want to know, who’s giving us [journalists] information? What do we know? How did we know it? And the ability of police to obtain our unreported information, and to identify our sources would prohibit us from doing our job; it would stop the flow of information; it would be a direct attack on democracy. And that’s why we’re all very interested in what happens here.

How has this event affected your thinking about protecting the Kansas Reflector’s unreported source material?

We’re just starting to have those conversations. One of the things that the raid underscores here is the importance of being able to back up information on the cloud in a way that we can continue to access it, if personal devices are taken.

We have to take great precautions to protect our sources, how we store the information on our personal devices and anywhere else.

We are eager for the legal outcome here, and [are hopeful that] it will send a clear signal to law enforcement that this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated.

The first time we spoke in January 2022, it was about how Kansas lawmakers barred media from the Senate floor, stymieing newsgathering. Do you think that kind of state-level activity creates a permission structure for local law enforcement to infringe upon freedom of the press?

It shows that we can’t take our freedoms for granted. We have to constantly fight to preserve them. Part of this is the need to educate people about what we do, and why we do it, and the value that we, as journalists, bring.

There is a general misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, by the public about who we [journalists] are and what we do. And so we have to do a better job of going out and telling our story and making it clear that we [journalists] are people who are in these communities that are gathering information, vetting that information, trying to hold powerful people accountable, and trying to get information out that somebody doesn’t want to have disclosed. That this kind of work is at the heart of so much of what we do.

When we see an action like what happened in Marion County. You know, it’s very clearly a direct attack on newspapers saying things that [powerful people] don’t want the public to hear.

What are the key takeaways for people outside of Kansas to understand about what’s happening in Marion County right now?

It’s important to push back on the narrative that police have put out there, which is that no reporter is above the law. The issue is not about a reporter being above the law, everybody understands that nobody’s above the law.

The question is whether police can act outside the law in this way and get away with it. What would the repercussions be?

I think there’s a lot still to understand about, for instance, why a judge would sign this in the first place, and also understanding the qualifications for a magistrate judge in Kansas. In this case, [the judge] is a licensed attorney, but under Kansas law, it doesn’t have to be. And so I think, in Kansas, and perhaps elsewhere, we should be looking at, you know, who is qualified to sign off on a search warrant? And are they really doing more than simply rubber stamping them?

Usually when there are these kinds of attacks on journalists, law enforcement try to pick off somebody who is a freelancer, or maybe a contributor of some kind, but not a full time employee for a news organization. And this case is a bit of an outlier: it’s a raid on [an] entire news organization that’s been in operation since the post-Civil War era.

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