Kansas police raid newspaper office and publisher's home, sparking press freedom concerns

01 December 2021, Saxony, Dresden: ILLUSTRATION - A stack of various daily newspapers lies on a table. Photo: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB (Photo by Sebastian Kahnert/picture alliance via Getty Images)

A small central Kansas police department is facing a torrent of criticism for raiding a local newspaper’s office and the owner and publisher’s home, seizing computers and cellphones, and, in the publisher’s view, stressing his 98-year-old mother enough to cause her weekend death.

Several press freedom watchdogs condemned the Marion Police Department's actions as a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution’s protection for a free press. The Marion County Record's editor and publisher, Eric Meyer, worked with his staff Sunday to reconstruct stories, ads and other materials for its next edition Wednesday, even as he took time in the afternoon to provide a local funeral home with information about his mother, Joan, the paper's co-owner.

A search warrant tied the raids by Marion police, led Friday morning by Chief Gideon Cody, to a dispute between the newspaper and a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell. She is accusing the newspaper of invading her privacy and illegally accessing information about her and her driving record and suggested that the newspaper targeted her after she threw Meyer and a reporter out of restaurant when it hosted an event for the congressman who represents the area.

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While Meyer saw Newell's complaints — which he said were untrue — as prompting the raids, he also believes the newspaper's aggressive coverage of local politics and issues played a role. He said the newspaper was examining Cody's past work with the Kansas City, Missouri, police as well.

"This is the type of stuff that, you know, that Vladimir Putin does, that Third World dictators do," Meyer said during an interview in his office. "This is Gestapo tactics from World War II."

Cody said Sunday that the raid was legal and tied to an investigation.

The raids occurred in a town of about 1,900 people, nestled among rolling prairie hills, about 150 miles (241 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City.

Meyer said that one Record reporter suffered an injury to a finger when Cody wrested her cellphone out of her hand, according to the report. The newspaper's surveillance video showed officers reading that reporter her rights while Cody watched, though she wasn't arrested or detained. Newspaper employees were hustled out of the building while the search continued for more than 90 minutes, according to the footage.

Meanwhile, Meyer said, police simultaneously raiding his home seized computers, his cellphone and the home’s internet router.

But as Meyer fielded messages from reporters and editors as far away as London and reviewed footage from the newsroom’s surveillance camera, Newell was receiving death threats from as far away, she said. She said the Record engages in "tabloid trash reporting" and was trying to hush her up.

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"I fully believe that the intent was to do harm and merely tarnish my reputation, and I think if had it been left at that, I don’t think that it would have blown up as big as it was," Newell said in a telephone interview.

Newell said she threw Meyer and the Record reporter out of the event for Republican U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner event at the request of others who are upset with the "toxic" newspaper. On the town's main street, one storefront included a handmade "Support Marion PD" sign."

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.

LaTurner's office did not immediately return phone messages left Sunday at his Washington and district offices seeking comment.

Newell said she believes the newspaper violated the law to get her personal information as it checked on the status of her driver's license following a 2008 drunken driving conviction and other driving violations.

The newspaper countered that it received that information unsolicited, which it verified through public online records. It eventually decided not to run a story because it wasn’t sure the source who supplied it had obtained it legally. But the newspaper did run a story on the city council meeting, in which Newell herself confirmed she'd had a DUI conviction and that she had continued to drive even after her license was suspended.

A two-page search warrant, signed by a local judge, lists Newell as the victim of alleged crimes by the newspaper. When the newspaper asked for a copy of the probable cause affidavit required by law to issue a search warrant, the district court issued a signed statement saying no such affidavit was on file, the Record reported.

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 the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing."

Cody did not give details about what that alleged wrongdoing entailed.

Cody, who was hired in late April as Marion's police chief after serving 24 years in the Kansas City police, did not respond to questions about whether police filed a probable cause affidavit for the search warrant. He also did not answer questions about how police believe Newell was victimized.

Press freedom and civil rights organizations agreed that police, the local prosecutor's office and the judge who signed off on the search warrant overstepped their authority.

"It seems like one of the most aggressive police raids of a news organization or entity in quite some time," said Sharon Brett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, adding that it seemed "quite an alarming abuse of authority."

Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement that the raid appeared to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, "and basic human decency."

"The anti-press rhetoric that’s become so pervasive in this country has become more than just talk and is creating a dangerous environment for journalists trying to do their jobs," Stern said.

Meyer said he has been flooded with offers of help from press freedom groups and other news organizations. But he said what he and his staff need is more hours in the day to get their next edition put together.

Both he and Newell are contemplating lawsuits — Newell against the newspaper and Meyer against the public officials who staged the raid.

As for the criticism of the raid as a violation of First Amendment rights, Newell said her privacy rights were violated, and they are "just as important as anybody else’s."