MARION, Kan. – A small central Kansas police department is facing a storm of criticism after it raided the offices of a local newspaper and the house of its publisher and owner – an action considered by several press freedom watchdogs to be a flagrant violation of the US. The protection of a free press by the constitution.
The Marion County Record said in its own published reports that police raided the paper’s office on Friday and seized the paper’s computers, phones and file server and staff’s personal cell phones, acting on a search warrant. . A reporter for Record said one of her fingers was injured when Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody snatched her cellphone from her hand, the report said.
Police simultaneously raided the home of Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s publisher and co-owner, seizing computers, his cell phone and the home’s Internet router, Meyer said. Meyer’s 98-year-old mother — Record co-owner Joan Meyer who lived in the home with her son — collapsed and died Saturday, Meyer said, blaming her death on the stress of the raid on her home.
Meyer said in his newspaper’s report that he believes the raid was prompted by a story published last week about a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell. Newell had police remove Meyer and a newspaper reporter from her restaurant early this month, who were there to cover a public reception for U.S. Representative Jake LaTurner, a Republican representing the area. The police chief and other officials also attended and were acknowledged at the reception, and the Marion Police Department highlighted the event on its Facebook page.
The following week, at a city council meeting, Newell publicly accused the newspaper of using illegal means to obtain information about a drunk driving conviction against her. The newspaper countered that it received that information unsolicited, which it tried to verify through public online records. It ultimately decided not to run a story about Newell’s DUI, but to run a story about the city council meeting, in which Newell himself confirmed the 2008 drunk driving conviction.
A two-page search warrant signed by a local judge lists Newell as the victim of alleged crimes by the paper. When the newspaper asked for a copy of the affidavit required by law to issue a search warrant, the court issued a signed affidavit saying no such affidavit was present, the record said.
Newell declined to comment on Sunday, saying she was too busy to talk. She said she would call back later Sunday to answer questions.
Cody, the police chief, defended the raid on Sunday, saying in an email to The Associated Press 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 that the journalist is participating in the underlying misconduct.”
Cody gave no details about what that alleged misconduct entailed.
Cody, who was hired as Marion’s police chief in late April after serving 24 years with the Kansas City, Missouri, police department, did not respond to questions about whether police had filed a statement for the search warrant. He also did not answer questions about how police believe Newell was victimized.
Meyer said the newspaper plans to sue police and possibly others, calling the raid an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s free press guarantee.
Press freedom and civil rights organizations agreed that the police, the local prosecutor’s office and the judge who signed the search warrant had exceeded their powers.
“It appears to be one of the most aggressive police raids by any news organization or entity in a long time,” said Sharon Brett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. The scope of the raid and the aggressiveness with which it was conducted appears to be “a rather alarming misuse of authority by the local police,” Brett said.
Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement that the raid appeared to violate federal law, the First Amendment, “and basic human decency.”
“This appears to be the most recent example of U.S. law enforcement officials treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes,” Stern said. “The rhetoric against the press that is so pervasive in this country has become more than just talk and is creating a dangerous environment for journalists trying to do their jobs.”