Police raid the Kansas newspaper office

A small town in Kansas has become a battleground over the First Amendment after the local police force and county sheriff’s deputies raided the Marion County records office.

Trials of news organizations are rare in the United States, which has a long history of legal protections for journalists. Police seized the computers, servers and cellphones of reporters and editors in the family-owned registry, which has a circulation of about 4,000. They also raided the home of the publisher’s owner and a retired teacher and the home of a city councilwoman.

The searches, which were conducted Friday, appear to be connected to an investigation into how a document containing information about a local restaurant found its way to a local newspaper — and whether the restaurant owner’s privacy was violated in the process. The newspaper editor said the raids may have more to do with tensions between the paper and authorities over earlier coverage in the town of Marion, about 2,000 miles north of Wichita.

The raid is one of several recent cases in which local authorities have taken aggressive measures against news organizations — some of which are part of a dwindling crowd remaining in their region to hold governments to account. And it fits the latest pattern of pressure applied to local newsrooms. A recent example is the 2019 police raid on the San Francisco home of Brian Carmody, a freelance journalist who was reporting on the death of longtime public defender Jeff Adachi.

“There’s a lot of healthy tension between the government and newspapers, but this?” Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said in an interview about the raid in Marion. He warned that the attack was a dangerous attack on press freedom in the country.

“This is not right, this is wrong, this cannot be allowed to stand,” he said.

Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s owner and editor, said in an interview that the newspaper had done nothing wrong. The newspaper did not publish the article on the government record, although Mr. Meyers said he obtained the copy from a confidential source, and that a reporter used government records available online to verify its authenticity.

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In an email, Marion’s police chief, Gideon Cody, defended the raid, which was previously reported online. Marion County record and by Kansas Reflector, A non-profit news agency.

“When the rest of the story becomes available to the public, I believe the justice system in question will be vindicated,” said Mr. Cody said. He declined to discuss the investigation in detail.

The Marion County record is unusual for its size. A newspaper with seven employees, Mr. Mr. Cody drew the ire of some local leaders for his aggressive statements toward Marion County officials, including asking questions about Cody’s employment history. Mayer said.

69-year-old Mr. Meyer oversees and has had a long career in journalism, working as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal and as a professor at the University of Illinois. He also has a family connection to the Marion County Record: His father, Bill, worked there for half a century, beginning in 1948, and rose to become its editor-in-chief.

In 1998, his family bought the newspaper and two nearby — the Hillsboro Star-Journal and the Peabody Gazette-Bulletin — from the previous publisher, the Hoch family, for 124 years.

The controversy over the government records that led to the raid didn’t become an issue except for a tip-off on Aug. 2 after a meet-and-greet with local congressman Jack Lauderner at a company-owned Cary’s Kitchen. Local restaurant Gary Newell.

Mr. Ms. Newell asked the police chief to remove the mayor and a reporter, Phyllis Zorn, from the event, saying they did not want to attend.

After the newspaper published an article about the episode, Ms. Zorn received a private message on Facebook, saying that Mr. Meyer said from someone who shared a letter with Ms. Newell from the Kansas Department of Revenue. The letter describes the steps he must take to reinstate his driver’s license, which was suspended after a drunken driving conviction in 2008, the newspaper said.

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Last Monday, Ms. Newell appeared at a city council meeting seeking approval to operate a liquor store. He accused the meeting of illegally obtaining the letter and giving the newspaper to councilor Ruth Herbal. Ms Herbel’s home was also searched on Friday and did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. said that he did not share the newspaper document with Ms. Herbal. Mayer said. He added that Mrs. Newell later told the newspaper that the disclosure may be related to her ongoing divorce proceedings.

A search warrant for the search, issued by a judge an hour before Friday morning’s search, singled out Ms. Newell and cited possible violations of laws related to identity theft and illegal use of a computer. The latter prohibits, among other things, using the computer “with intent to obtain money, property, services, or anything else of value by false or fraudulent pretense or representation.”

A spokeswoman for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which assists criminal justice agencies across the state, said Marion police approached the bureau to help with an investigation into “illegal access and dissemination of classified criminal justice information.”

Although news organizations are sometimes the target of legal action by government officials, searches and seizures of journalistic tools, including subpoenas seeking interview notes and other records, are rare.

Seth Stern, director of advocacy at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of journalists and whistle-blowers, said federal law allows police to search journalists when authorities believe they have committed an unrelated crime. to their journal. However, the exception does not apply in the case of collecting the alleged message, he said. When journalists are suspected of committing crimes as part of news gathering, the government’s option is to issue a subpoena, which can be challenged in court before it is enforced.

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“If the crime you’re investigating is journalism, you can’t say, ‘Because I’m investigating a crime, I’m allowed to raid the newsroom,'” he added.

The police chief, who started work this spring, Mr. Cody and Mrs. Newell argued that journalists were subject to searches if they were suspected of the crime being investigated. Ms Newell said someone illegally used her identity to get personal information about her online.

In a telephone interview, Ms. Newell framed the controversy as a direct violation of her privacy at the newspaper rather than a First Amendment battle.

“There’s a big difference between revenge and justification,” Ms Newell said. “I firmly believe that this is an act of revenge, full of malice. I hope that in the end, I will be vindicated.

The newspaper, which is published weekly on Wednesdays, without most of its computers and servers, is scrambling to publish the next edition, which contains articles and advertisements and general announcements.

Mr. Meyer said he had never experienced such government pressure.

“If we don’t fight back, if we don’t succeed in fighting back, it’s going to silence everybody,” he said.

He returned to and stayed in Marian full-time during the Covid-19 pandemic, retiring from his university position and spending more time writing and editing the newspaper, and living with his 98-year-old mother. He said that if the company makes a profit at the end of the year, he gets an annual bonus but no salary.

On Saturday, his mother died. In An article Posted online Saturday evening, the post linked Joan Mayer’s death to the search, writing that it “stressed her beyond her limits.” Headline: “Illegal Tests Contribute to Death of Newspaper Co-Owner.”

Jack Beck contributed research.

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