A town’s entire five-officer police force and two sheriff’s deputies raided a small newspaper in Kansas, the Marion County Record, seizing computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the newspaper’s office, its reporters, and the publisher’s home.
“This looks like the latest example of American law enforcement officers treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes,” Seth Stern, advocacy director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization that protects, defends and empowers public-interest journalism in the 21st century, said Friday. “The anti-press rhetoric that’s become so pervasive in this country has become more than just talk and is creating a dangerous environment for journalists trying to do their jobs.”
The raid followed new stories published by the Record about a restaurant owner, Kari Newell who kicked reporters out of a meeting with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kansas) and Newell’s lack of a driver’s license and previous drunk driving conviction. Newell has accused the newspaper of illegally obtaining records showing her drunk driving conviction and supplying it to the town’s Councilwoman Ruth Herbel.
Eric Meyer, co-owner and publisher of the newspaper, told the Kansas Reflector that police were motivated to act because of a confidential source who provided the newspaper with the documents evidencing Newell’s drunk-driving conviction and her continued use of her vehicle without a driver’s license. Meyer said that the message from the police was clear: “mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”
“Journalists rely on confidential sources to report on matters of vital public concern,” Shannon Jankowski, PEN America’s journalism and disinformation program director, said in a statement. “Law enforcement’s sweeping raid on the Marion County Record and confiscation of its equipment almost certainly violates federal law and puts the paper’s very ability to publish the news in jeopardy.”
The search warrant, signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, specifically targeted computer software and hardware, digital communications, cellular networks and servers capable of being used to “participate in the identity theft of Kari Newell.” The warrant may violate federal law, which provides protections against searches and seizures from journalists, and requires that law enforcement subpoena materials instead.
“This is outrageous. … How did a judge possibly approve this almost-certainly illegal raid? Who is going to hold the police accountable?” Freedom of the Press Foundation said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, with dozens of news organizations signing on, condemned the raid in a letter sent to Police Chief Gideon Cody.
“Your department’s seizure of this equipment has substantially interfered with the Record’s First Amendment-protected newsgathering 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 said.
Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of the newspaper, died at her home the day after the raid in which police seized an Alexa speaker, which served as an emergency contact device. Meyer had been “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief,” the Record said.
“[We] want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today,” Meyer said. “We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law.”
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