Marion County police in Kansas defended their unusual raid on a newspaper office and the publisher’s house on Saturday by citing a provision in federal law that shields journalists from searches and seizures.
On Friday, police raided the Marion County Record, confiscating laptops and personal telephones of reporters as part of an investigation into the suspected identity theft of a restaurant owner who had a rivalry with the newspaper. Officers also raided Eric Meyer’s home, where he resided with his 98-year-old mother, Joan who was a co-publisher of the newspaper.
Joan Meyer, who was “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief,” collapsed and died, according to the newspaper.
The publication stated that it intended to file a federal lawsuit. Attorneys representing the free press and advocacy groups questioned the police justification for the raid.
“It appears that the police department is attempting to criminalize protected speech in order to circumvent federal law,” said Jared McClain, a libertarian legal firm’s attorney.
“The First Amendment ensures that publications like the Marion County Record can conduct investigations without fear of retaliation,” McClain said. “When police raid a newsroom, storm reporters’ homes, seize their property, and gain access to their confidential sources, it chills the important function of journalism.
” That is why we must hold officers accountable who retaliate against citizens who exercise their First Amendment rights.”
Newspaper withheld Publishing Story
The Marion Police Department recognised Saturday on its Facebook page that the federal Privacy Protection Act protects journalists from searches. The law, however, does not apply when journalists are accused of criminal activity, according to the department.
“The victim requests that we do everything within the law to ensure that justice is served,” the statement stated. Kari Newell, the alleged victim, operates a restaurant in Marion and was attempting to secure a liquor licence.
Newell declined to comment for this article, but linked to a statement she published on her personal Facebook page on Saturday. She claimed that someone obtained her driver’s licence number and date of birth by intercepting letters addressed to her from the Kansas Department of Revenue. This information was then used to search KDOR’s website for her driver’s licence history.
The newspaper’s publisher, Eric Meyer, stated a private source had produced paperwork proving Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and driving without a licence in 2008. A reporter utilised the KDOR website to confirm the accuracy of the material, but the newspaper decided not to print a story on it.
Instead, Eric Meyer stated that he notified local authorities of the issue. Marion police, working with state officials, initiated an investigation and notified Newell. They secured a search order from Magistrate Judge Laura Viar to look for evidence of identity theft and unlawful computer activity.
“Basically,” Eric Meyer explained, “all the law enforcement officers on duty in Marion County, Kansas, descended on our offices today and seized our server, computers, and staff members’ personal cellphones all because of a story we didn’t publish.”
Abuses of the newspaper’s legal rights
According to Newell’s Facebook post, the newspaper has a “reputation of contortion,” and “media is not exempt from the laws they blast others for not following.” “The victim shaming culture is sad and an injustice,” wrote Newell. “I’ve gotten fake reviews, nasty hateful messages and comments, and borderline threats.” The sheer volume of slander and defamation is astounding.”
The raid on Friday drew national notice and drew censure from free speech organisations.
According to Shannon Jankowski, head of PEN America’s journalism and misinformation program, law enforcement should be held accountable for abuses of the newspaper’s legal rights.
“Journalists rely on confidential sources to report on matters of vital public concern,” stated Jankowski. “Law enforcement’s sweeping raid on the Marion County Record and seizure of its equipment almost certainly violates federal law and jeopardises the paper’s ability to publish news.” Such brazen attempts to influence with news reporting cannot go unpunished in a democracy.”
According to Max Kautsch, president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, if evidence exists to justify an exemption to federal statute shielding journalists from searches, it will be included in the affidavit that supports the search warrant.
The Kansas Reflector petitioned Marion County District Court on Friday for a copy of the affidavit. The court has 10 days to either produce the requested document or deny the request.
“There is no reason to withhold that information,” Kautsch added. “Once the public has access to the search warrant application, it can decide for itself whether the search was justified, rather than taking the word of the agency that carried out the search.”
Eileen O’Reilly, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein, head of the organization’s Journalism Institute, issued a joint statement saying they were “shocked and outraged by this brazen violation of press freedom.”
“A law enforcement raid on a newspaper office is deeply upsetting anywhere in the world,” they explained. “It is especially concerning in the United States, where we have strong and well-established legal safeguards ensuring press freedom.”
Major news media outlets condemn police action
According to the Marion County Record, Joan Meyer, the publisher’s mother and co-owner of the daily, was unable to eat or sleep after officers arrived at her home.
“She wept as police carted away not only her computer and an Alexa smart speaker router, but also dug through her son Eric’s personal bank and investment statements to photograph them,” the newspaper stated.
Joan Meyer had been “in good health for her age” before to the raid, according to the report.