Media giants raise First Amendment concerns over raid on Kansas paper

August 16, 2023

A police department in Marion, Kansas, was accused on Sunday, August 13, of violating First Amendment  protections after officers raided a local paper and the home of its owners, reports Axios.

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.”

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.”

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.

Th 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.

Newell also removed reporters from a meeting at her restaurant last week with U.S. Representative Jake LaTurner (R-Kansas), according to the Kansas 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.”

“[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.

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 that her privacy had been violated.

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.

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

 Research contact: @axios