Officials in Marion County, Kansas, announced on Wednesday that they would return items that were seized from a newspaper under highly controversial, and likely illegal, circumstances.
Five police officers from the town and two sheriff’s deputies raided the offices of The Marion County Record last week, ostensibly to find evidence over whether the paper had illegally obtained information about restaurant owner Kari Newell, whom the paper had reported was driving without a license despite a prior drunk-driving conviction. Eric Meyer, the owner and publisher of the paper, maintains that the information was obtained legally through a confidential source, and notably, the city has not publicly provided any proof of their claims against the paper.
A search warrant was obtained from a district court magistrate judge, which may violate federal law — in cases like these involving journalists and publications where an illegal act is suspected, law enforcement is supposed to obtain a subpoena order instead.
The action was viewed by many in the community, and across the country as it made national headlines, as a retributive act by government officials to punish a paper over reporting it disliked, in direct violation of First Amendment principles of press freedom.
“Journalists rely on confidential sources to report on matters of vital public concern. 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,” read a statement from Shannon Jankowski, PEN America’s journalism and disinformation program director, about the raid.
The raid distressed Joan Meyer, a 98-year-old co-owner of the paper and Eric Meyer’s mother, so greatly that she couldn’t eat or sleep. She died one day after the raid occurred.
On Wednesday, Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey announced the original warrant was being withdrawn, stating that “insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and items seized.” Ensey added that the city will “work with the Marion County Record, or their representative, to coordinate the prompt return of all seized items.”
A lawyer for the newspaper called the move a “promising first step,” but said it wasn’t enough.
“We’re a long way from achieving justice. … It does nothing to cure the harm caused by the illegal search in the first place and regrettably it does not bring Joan Meyer back,” the paper’s attorney Bernie Rhodes said. “Someone has to pay for what occurred. This may stop the hemorrhaging, but it does not address the damages that occurred.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) said on Wednesday that a case has been started regarding the actions of city and county law enforcement officials and “remains open.” The investigation will be independent of those agencies and will happen “without review or examination of any of the evidence seized,” the KBI added.
In a statement regarding the city’s latest actions, the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) said the decision to return materials, while a positive action, did not deserve praise, as the raid should never have happened in the first place.
“Authorities deserve zero credit for coming to their senses only after an intense backlash from the local and national media and an aggressive letter from The Record’s lawyer,” said FPF Director of Advocacy Seth Stern.
“Sending the entire police force to search a newsroom because journalists verified information from a source is an outrageous overreaction that threatens freedom of the press,” added FPF Deputy Director of Advocacy Caitlin Vogus.
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