Tensions between public officials and the press are hardly unusual. To a large extent, it’s baked into their respective roles.
What’s rare in a democratic society is a police raid on a news organization’s office or the home of its owner. So when that happened late last week, it attracted the sort of national attention that the town of Marion, Kansas, is hardly used to.
The Marion Police Department took computers and cellphones from the office of the Marion County Record newspaper on Friday, and also entered the home of Eric Meyer, publisher and editor. The weekly newspaper serves a town of 1,900 people that is about 150 miles (241 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, Missouri.
Within two days, the raid drew the attention of some of the nation’s largest media organizations, including The Associated Press, The New York Times, CNN, CBS News, the New Yorker and the Gannett newspaper chain.
WHAT PROMPTED THIS ACTION?
Police said they had probable cause to believe there were violations of Kansas law, including one pertaining to identity theft, involving a woman named Kari Newell, according to a search warrant signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar.
Newell is a local restaurant owner — and no big fan of the newspaper — who had Meyer and one of his reporters thrown out of an event being held there for a local congressman.
Newell said she believed the newspaper, acting on a tip, violated the law to get her personal information to check the status of her driver’s license following a 2008 conviction for drunk driving. Meyer said the Record decided not to write about it, but when Newell revealed at a subsequent city council meeting that she had driven while her license was suspended, that was reported.
Meyer also believes the newspaper’s aggressive coverage of local issues, including the background of Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, played a part in the raid.
HOW UNUSUAL IS THIS?
It’s very rare. In 2019, San Francisco police raided the home of Bryan Carmody, an independent journalist, seeking to find his source for a story about a police investigation into the sudden death of a local public official, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. San Francisco paid a settlement to Carmody as a result of the raid.
Police have confiscated material at newspapers, but usually because they are seeking evidence to help investigate someone else’s crime, not a crime the journalists were allegedly involved in, said Clay Calvert, an expert on First Amendment law at the American Enterprise Institute. For example, when police raided the offices of James Madison University’s student newspaper in 2010, they seized photos as part of a probe into a riot.
The Marion raid “appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency,” said Seth Stern, advocacy director for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.”
COULD THIS BE LEGAL?
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution asserts that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Things get murkier when you get into specifics.
Journalists gathering material for use in possible stories are protected by the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980. For one thing, police need a subpoena — not just a search warrant — to conduct such a raid, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Cody acknowledged this, in an email to The Associated Press, but he said there is an exception “when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.”
Gabe Rottman, lawyer for the Reporters Committee, said he’s not sure Cody’s reason for believing the so-called suspect exception applies here. In general, it does not apply to material used in the course of reporting, like draft stories or public documents that are being used to check on a news tip.
The search warrant in this case was “significantly overbroad, improperly intrusive and possibly in violation of federal law,” the Reporters Committee said in a letter to Cody that was signed by dozens of news organizations.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER SO MUCH TO JOURNALISTS?
It’s important to speak out in this case “because we’re just seeing in way too many countries around the world that democracy is being eroded bit by bit,” said Kathy Kiely, Lee Hills chair of Free Press Studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Anger toward the press in the United States, often fueled by politicians, has grown in recent years, leading to concern about actions being taken to thwart news coverage.
In April, an Oklahoma sheriff was among several county officials caught on tape discussing killing journalists and lynching Black people. Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond later said there was no legal grounds to remove McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy.
In June, two reporters for the Asheville Blade newspaper in North Carolina were found guilty of misdemeanor trespassing. The Freedom of Press Foundation said the reporters were arrested while covering a police sweep of a homeless encampment and arrested for being in the park after its 10 p.m. closing.
WHAT SUPPORT IS THERE FOR THE POLICE ACTION?
Not everyone in Kansas was quick to condemn the raid.
Jared Smith, a lifelong Marion resident, said the newspaper is too negative and drives away businesses, including a day spa run by his wife that recently closed. He cited repeated stories in the Record about his wife’s past — she had once modeled nude for a magazine years ago.
“The newspaper is supposed to be something that, yes, reports the news, but it’s also a community newspaper,” Smith said. “It’s not, ‘How can I slam this community and drive people away?’ “
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation issued a statement Sunday stating that Director Tony Mattivi “believes very strongly that freedom of the press is a vanguard of American democracy.” But the statement added that search warrants are common at places like law enforcement offices and city, county and state offices.
“No one is above the law, whether a public official or a representative of the media,” the statement read.