By editorial board • 

Police raid on Kansas paper stains our nation's birthright

Police in Marion, Kansas, shook the foundations of American journalism last Friday when they raided the offices of the 154-year-old Marion County Record, seizing computers, cellphones, servers and other equipment essential to publication of its weekly editions, along with the federally protected fruits of newsgathering contained therein.

In an interview with NPR, First Amendment attorney Lynn Oberlander noted the raiding of newspapers by law enforcement agencies is highly unusual in the U.S.

“It’s very rare because it’s illegal,” she said. “It doesn’t happy very often because most organizations understand that it’s illegal.”

The raids were staged by newly named Chief Gideon Cody — whose background as a captain in the Kansas City Police was under active investigation by the Record — with all four of his officers and a pair of borrowed sheriff’s deputies in tow. The home of the newspaper’s mother-and-son co-owners was raided simultaneously, along with that of a local city councilwoman.

In the course of the raid, the invading force seized a computer and router used as service aids by 98-year-old family matriarch Joan Meyer, a 50-year journalist still writing a weekly column for the paper. Previously in good health, she was so traumatized by the incident she couldn’t sleep or eat and died the next day.

Son Eric Meyer, 69, toiled for 20 years at the Milwaukee Journal, then taught for 26 at the University of Illinois, before returning to Marion to take the reins as editor and publisher. He vowed to continue publishing uninterrupted while seeking redress for what he termed “Gestapo tactics.”

In a letter of complaint filed on the Record’s behalf, attorney Bernie Rhodes said the raid had “plainly violated the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as Sections 11, 15 and 18 of the Kansas Bill of Rights.” National media lawyers said it also violated the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, enacted by Congress in response to a widely condemned police raid on the offices of the Stanford Daily, serving Northern California’s Stanford University.

The First Amendment establishes freedom of speech and press, the Fourth protection from unfounded search and seizure, the Fifth protection from forced self-incrimination and the Fourteenth the right to due process under the law. The Privacy Protection Act affords newspapers enhanced protection from unfounded search and seizure, based on their fundamental First Amendment role as facilitators of free speech.

So how did all this come about?

The prime mover seems not to be the chief himself, rather local restaurant owner Kari Newell. It appears she merely found him a receptive, even eager, partner.

Newell’s fear was exposure of a 2008 drunk driving conviction, a resulting license suspension and continued driving in defiance of that suspension. She felt it could jeopardize her application for a liquor license she needed for a catering venture.

Also complicit was District Court Magistrate Laura Viar.

She not only bypassed the routine and vastly less intrusive subpoena route, but appears to have issued the underlying search warrants without even requiring a probable cause affidavit. When the Record demanded a copy under Kansas public records law, she said she was unable to produce such an affidavit because none existed.

The warrant was based on Newell’s accusation that the newspaper had used a false identity to access a computer file of her supposedly sealed conviction and shared it with a local councilwoman. Cody termed that a criminal matter warranting investigation.

However, Eric Meyer said the record had been supplied to the paper and councilwoman, totally unsolicited, by an informant. He said the paper had verified it by legally accessing a state database, but had decided it did not merit a story. “We never attempted to steal anyone’s identity,” he told NPR.

The information was ultimately made public by Newell herself in a Facebook post in which she apologized for the “foolish” indiscretion.

Adding to the uproar — in addition to Joan Meyer’s tragic post-raid death — was injury suffered by one of the Record’s reporters to a previously dislocated finger when Cody ripped a cellphone out of her hand.

Was all of this really necessary? Was any of this, in fact, really necessary? Not in the view of a legion of press organizations and battalion of First Amendment lawyers weighing in around the country.

The Kansas Press Association asserted: “An attack on a newspaper office through an illegal search is not just an infringement on the rights of journalists, but an assault on the very foundation of democracy and the public’s right to know. This cannot be allowed to stand.”

Law professor John Kosseff said: “I can’t imagine a scenario in which all of these other protections would be overcome to allow a raid on a newsroom. This raid has been more than just potentially compromising sources. This has threatened the ability of the newsroom to operate altogether — and that’s why we have these protections.”

Another First Amendment advocate termed it an “outrageous abuse of power by the local authorities.”

They were joined by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a four-page statement signed by 34 major news organizations, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and CNN.

“Newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech by the press and the public,” they said.

NPR said there appeared to be broad consensus among media lawyers that “the alleged crime is linked to news gathering, which is protected by federal law.”

Rhodes, the lawyer representing the paper, told the police chief in his complaint letter, “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.” He went on to say, “I can assure you that The Record will take every step to obtain relief.”

No doubt the complacent among us are assuring themselves that what happened in a backwater corner of Kansas could never happen here — not in Oregon, our Oregon.

We wish we shared that assurance. Alas, in today’s virulently anti-media milieu, we do not.

We’ve seen enough underhanded, highhanded and redhanded shenanigans in these parts to counsel continued vigilance. Besides, an offense against one is an offense against all, and deserves condemnation as such.



It really sucks when law enforcement can be manipulated by people with power. Sure glad that doesn’t happen with the FBI.

Bill B

or the DOJ


I can't imagine anyone's first amendment freedoms being suppressed in this country. Does the news know about this?

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