MARION, Kan. (AP) — A small police agency in central Kansas faces heavy criticism after it ransacked the offices of a local newspaper and the home of its publisher and owner — a move considered by several press freedom watchdogs to be a blatant breach of protection a free press by the US Constitution.
The Marion County Record said in its own published reports that police raided the newspaper’s office on Friday and, based on a search warrant, seized the newspaper’s computers, phones and file servers, as well as employees’ personal cell phones. According to the report, a Records reporter suffered a finger injury when Gideon Cody, Marion’s police chief, snatched the phone from her hand.
At the same time, police searched the home of Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s editor and co-owner, and confiscated computers, his cellphone and the home’s Internet router, Meyer said. Meyer’s 98-year-old mother – record co-owner Joan Meyer, who lived in the home with her son – collapsed and died on Saturday, Meyer said, blaming the stress of the raid on her home for her death.
Meyer said he believes the raid was sparked by a story published last week about a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell. Newell had police remove Meyer and a newspaper reporter from her restaurant earlier this month who were there to cover a public reception for US Representative Jake LaTurner, a Republican representing the region. The police chief and other officers were also present and greeted at the reception, and the Marion Police Department publicized the event on its Facebook page.
LaTurner’s office did not immediately respond to phone messages he left Sunday at his Washington and county offices seeking comment.
The next week, at a city council meeting, Newell publicly accused the newspaper of using illegal means to obtain information about the status of her driver’s license after she was convicted of drunk driving and other traffic violations in 2008.
The newspaper countered that it received this information unsolicited and verified it against online public records. Eventually, it was decided not to publish a story as it was not certain that the source that provided it had obtained it legally. But the newspaper ran an article about the city council meeting in which Newell herself confirmed that she had been convicted of drunk driving and that she continued to drive even after her driver’s license was revoked.
Meyer also noted that the newspaper investigated the police chief’s background and why he left the Kansas City, Missouri, police department before being hired as chief in April.
A two-page search warrant signed by a local judge lists Newell as a 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 affidavit saying there was no such affidavit on file, The Record reported.
Newell declined to comment Sunday, saying she was too busy to comment. She said she would call back later on Sunday to answer questions.
Cody, the police chief, defended Sunday’s raid, saying in an email to The Associated Press that while federal law normally requires a subpoena — not just a search warrant — for a newsroom raid, there is one exception , “if there is a reason for it. I assume that the journalist is complicit in the underlying wrongdoing.”
Cody did not provide any information as to what led to this alleged misconduct.
Cody, who was hired as Marion’s police chief in late April after serving in the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department for 24 years, did not respond to questions about whether police had filed an affidavit for the search warrant. He also didn’t answer questions about how police believe Newell was a victim.
Meyer said the newspaper plans to sue the police department and possibly others, calling the raid an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press.
“This, the more I think about it, is nothing short of an attempt to intimidate us, perhaps to prevent us from publishing,” he said. “You didn’t have to go through that. They didn’t have to witness the drama.”
Press freedom and civil rights organizations agreed that the police, local prosecutors and the judge who signed the search warrant had exceeded their powers.
“It appears to be one of the most aggressive police crackdowns on any news organization or organization in a long time,” said Sharon Brett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. The scale of the raid and the aggressiveness with which it was carried out “appears to represent a rather alarming abuse of power by the local police department,” Brett said.
Seth Stern, advocacy director for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement that the raid appeared to violate federal law, the First Amendment, “and basic human decency.”
“This appears to be the latest example of American law enforcement officials treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes,” Stern said. “The anti-press rhetoric so ubiquitous in this country is more than just talk and creates a dangerous environment for journalists trying to get their jobs done.”
Meyer said the newspaper was inundated with offers of help.
“We had volunteers hauling gear up from Texas and Indiana,” he said. “The former district attorney just told me he would buy us computers, give them to us, and bring them over from Kansas City.”
Beck reported from Omaha, Nebraska.
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