Police defend raid on Kansas newspaper amid backlash over ‘brazen violation of press freedom’

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Marion County Record reports publisher’s mother died from stress of raid at their home

TOPEKA — Marion County police on Saturday defended their unprecedented raid on a newspaper office and the publisher’s home by pointing to a loophole in federal law that protects journalists from searches and seizures.

Law enforcement raided the Marion County Record on Friday, seizing computers and reporters’ personal cellphones as part of an investigation into alleged identity theft of a restaurant operator who feuded with the newspaper. Officers also raided the home of publisher Eric Meyer, who lived with his 98-year-old mother, Joan.

The newspaper reported Saturday that Joan Meyer, “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief,” had collapsed and died.

The newspaper said it was planning to file a federal lawsuit. Free press attorneys and advocacy groups rejected the police explanation for the raid.

“It appears like the police department is trying to criminalize protected speech in an attempt to sidestep federal law,” said Jared McClain, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm.

“The First Amendment ensures that publications like the Marion County Record can investigate public officials without fear of reprisal,” McClain said. “It chills the important function of journalism when police raid a newsroom, storm the homes of reporters, seize their property and gain access to their confidential sources. That’s precisely why we must hold accountable officers who retaliate against people who exercise their First Amendment rights.”

The Marion County Police Department, in a statement posted Saturday on the department’s Facebook page, acknowledged that the federal Privacy Protection Act protects journalists from searches. However, the department argued, the law doesn’t apply when journalists are suspected of criminal activity.

“The victim asks that we do all the law allows to ensure justice is served,” the statement said.

The alleged victim is Kari Newell, who owns a restaurant in Marion and was trying to obtain a liquor license.

Newell declined to answer questions for this story but pointed to a statement she issued Saturday on her personal Facebook page. She said someone had used a piece of mail addressed to her from the Kansas Department of Revenue to obtain her driver’s license number and date of birth. That information was then used to find her driver’s license history through KDOR’s website.

Eric Meyer, the newspaper publisher, said a confidential source had provided documentation that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving in 2008 and had driven without a license. A reporter used the KDOR website to verify that the information was accurate, but the newspaper decided not to publish a story about the information.

Instead, Eric Meyer said, he notified local police of the situation. Marion County police, in coordination with state authorities, launched an investigation and alerted Newell. They obtained a search warrant, signed by Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, for evidence of identity theft and criminal use of a computer.

“Basically,” Eric Meyer said, “all the law enforcement officers on duty in Marion County, Kansas, descended on our offices today and seized our server and computers and personal cellphones of staff members all because of a story we didn’t publish.”

Eric Meyer
 Eric Meyer, owner and publisher of the Marion County Record, speaks on on the phone with news media in his office Aug. 11, 2023 (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

Newell, in her Facebook statement, said the newspaper has a “reputation of contortion,” and that “media is not exempt from the laws they blast others for not following.”

“The victim shaming culture is sad and an injustice,” Newell wrote. “I have received false reviews, nasty hateful messages and comments and borderline threats. The sheer amount of defamation and slander is overwhelming.”

News of Friday’s raid attracted national attention and elicited condemnation from free speech organizations.

Shannon Jankowski, PEN America’s journalism and disinformation program director, said law enforcement should be held accountable for violations of the newspaper’s legal rights.

“Journalists rely on confidential sources to report on matters of vital public concern,” Jankowski said. “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. Such egregious attempts to interfere with news reporting cannot go unchecked in a democracy.”

Max Kautsch, president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, said if there were evidence to justify an exemption to federal law protecting journalists from searches, it would be identified in the affidavit that supports the search warrant.

Kansas Reflector on Friday petitioned Marion County District Court for a copy of the affidavit. The court has 10 days to provide the document or deny the request.

“There is no reason for that information to be withheld,” Kautsch said. “Once the public has an opportunity to look at the search warrant application, it can decide for itself whether the search was justified, rather than take the word of the agency that executed the search.”

National Press Club president Eileen O’Reilly and Gil Klein, president of the organization’s Journalism Institute, said in a joint statement they were “shocked and outraged by this brazen violation of press freedom.”

“A law enforcement raid of a newspaper office is deeply upsetting anywhere in the world,” they said. “It is especially concerning in the United States, where we have strong and well-established legal protections guaranteeing the freedom of the press.”

The Marion County Record on Saturday said Joan Meyer, the publisher’s mother and co-owner of the paper, had not been able to eat or sleep after officers arrived at her house.

“She tearfully watched during the raid as police not only carted away her computer and a router used by an Alexa smart speaker but also dug through her son Eric’s personal bank and investments statements to photograph them,” the newspaper reported.

Before the raid, the report said, Joan Meyer had been “in good health for her age.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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