FOR THE WEEK OF AUG. 21, 2023
Unusual police seizures at small Kansas newspaper raise big national issues and draw wide attention
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A weekly newspaper in a 1,900-person Kansas town is at the center of a nationally watched press freedom controversy. The local police chief and all four of his officers, joined by two sheriff's deputies, recently raided The Marion County Record's office and its owners' home. They took computers, cell phones and digital records in a court-authorized search targeting "documents and records pertaining to Kari Newell," a restaurant owner who accused the newspaper of "tabloid trash reporting" and using illegal ways to get information on her driver's license status after a 2008 drunken driving conviction and other violations. The paper says it got unsolicited records from a tipster and verified them through public data online before deciding not to write about them. Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, a rookie jurist on the bench since January, cited possible identity theft and illegal use of a computer as reasons for allowing the searches.Five days after the abrupt raids, the county prosecutor asked Viar to withdraw the search warrant because of "insufficient evidence" and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation last week coordinated the return of all seized items. The Record's lawyer said the turnabout "does nothing to recompense the paper for the violation of its First Amendment rights when the search was conducted."
Eric Meyer, editor and publisher of the paper his father originally owned, thinks the seizures had to do with aggressive coverage of local politics and its look into Police Chief Gideon Cody's work history before being hired in May. The Record got tips that he left the police force in Kansas City, Mo., after 24 years amid sexual misconduct complaints. "This is the type of stuff that Vladimir Putin does, that Third World dictators do," Meyer told the Associated Press. In a sad turn, his 98-year-old mother Joann – co-owner of the paper with her son – died at home a day after the raid there. Stress from the intrusion was a "major contributing factor," Meyer says the local medical examiner told him. The Record has seven employees and about 4,000 subscribers.
Police raids on news organizations are almost unknown in the United States and are illegal under most circumstances under state and federal law. "This shouldn't happen in America," says Emily Bradbury, director of the Kansas Press Association. "Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy." The Society of Professional Journalists offered $20,000 to help cover legal fees as The Record fought back.
Media group says: "The police raid of the Marion County Record appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment and basic human decency. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves." -- Seth Stern of Freedom of the Press Foundation, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Police chief says: "When the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated." – Gideon Cody, police chief in Marion, Kansas
Paper’s lawyer says: "Your personal decision to treat the local newspaper as a drug cartel or a street gang offends the constitutional protections the founding fathers gave the free press." – Bernard J. Rhodes of Kansas City, Mo., in letter to police chief
Front Page Talking Points Archive