Updated Aug 14, 2023 - Economy

Media giants raise First Amendment concerns over raid on Kansas paper

Illustration of a press microphone with a bomb as the top of the microphone. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A police department in Marion, Kansas, was accused Sunday of violating First Amendment protections after officers raided a local paper and the home of its owners.

Driving the news: The Marion County Record's publisher told Axios on Monday that he plans to file a federal lawsuit over the raid, which the paper said contributed to the death of its 98-year-old co-owner Joan Meyer. The raid was widely condemned by major news organizations and journalism advocacy groups.

  • Over 30 major news organizations and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote a letter to the chief of the Marion Police Department Sunday, saying there "appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search."

Why it matters: The media coalition and other press freedom groups argue the raids infringed on the paper's rights and may have violated federal law that restricts law enforcement's ability to conduct newsroom searches.

  • Eric Meyer, the paper's co-owner and editor, said in an email Monday morning he plans to file a suit "to establish a clear precedent that this sort of behavior cannot be tolerated."

Details: The Marion County Record said in online reports that police seized computers and staff's file servers and phones in Friday's raid on the family-owned paper's office and took Eric Meyer's phone, computers and internet router during a search of his home after a warrant was issued and signed by a local judge.

  • The raids occurred following a complaint from restaurant owner Kari Newell, who accused the paper of illegally obtaining and disseminating sensitive information on a drunken driving conviction against her, per nonprofit news site the Kansas Reflector.
  • However, the paper said it had obtained the information legally from a tip and used public online records to verify details. The paper decided against publishing the information and instead contacted police. It did report on Newell confirming the conviction during a city council meeting.

Of note: Newell also removed reporters from a meeting at her restaurant last week with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kansas), according to the Reflector.

  • The Marion County Record said co-owner Joan Meyer, who was "otherwise in good health for her age," died at her home Saturday after becoming "stressed beyond her limits" over "illegal police raids."

What they're saying: "[T]he police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency," said Seth Stern, director of Advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation, in a statement following the raid on the paper, which has a circulation of about 4,000.

The other side: Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody in an emailed statement to news outlets including Axios declined to discuss investigation details, but said: "I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated."

  • He added that the federal Privacy Protection Act "does protect journalists from most searches," but added this does not apply "when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing."
  • Newall told the New York Times her privacy had been violated.

Zoom out: Tensions between local newsrooms and local law enforcement officials have escalated in recent years, per data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

  • In 2020, dozens of journalists across the country were arrested and targeted by police during nationwide George Floyd protests.
  • More recently, politicians have pushed to block journalists from covering public events. Gov. Ron DeSantis notably barred journalists from covering an event in which he signed a controversial bill into law in 2021.

Read the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press letter, signed by outlets including the New York Times, AP and the Washington Post, via DocumentCloud:

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from publisher Eric Meyer, Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody and restaurant owner Kari Newell.

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