MARION, Kan. (AP) — A small central Kansas police department is facing a firestorm of criticism after it raided the offices of a local newspaper and the home of its publisher and owner — a move deemed by several press freedom watchdogs as a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution’s protection of a free press.
The Marion County Record said in its own published reports that police raided the newspaper’s office on Friday, seizing the newspaper’s computers, phones and file server and the personal cellphones of staff, based on a search warrant. One Record reporter suffered an injury to a finger when Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody wrested her cellphone out of her hand, according to the report.
Police simultaneously raided the home of Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s publisher and co-owner, seizing 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 Saturday, Meyer said, blaming her death on the stress of the raid of her home.
Meyer said he believes the raid was prompted 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 early this month, who were there to cover a public reception for U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, a Republican representing the area. The police chief and other officials also attended and were acknowledged at the reception, and the Marion Police Department highlighted the event on its Facebook page.
LaTurner’s office did not immediately return phone messages left Sunday at his Washington and district offices seeking comment.
The next week at a city council meeting, Newell publicly accused the newspaper of using illegal means to get information on the status of her driver’s license following a 2008 drunken driving conviction and other driving violations. The newspaper countered that it received that information unsolicited, which it verified through public online records. It eventually decided not to run a story, because it wasn’t sure the source who supplied it had obtained it legally. But the newspaper did run a story on the city council meeting, in which Newell herself confirmed she’d had a DUI conviction and that she had continued to drive even after her license was suspended.
Meyer also noted that the newspaper was looking into the police chief’s background and why he left the Kansas City, Missouri, police department before being hired in April as chief.
A two-page search warrant, signed by a local judge, lists Newell as the 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 statement saying no such affidavit was on file, the Record reported.
Newell declined to comment Sunday, saying she was too busy to speak. She said she would call back later Sunday to answer questions.
Cody, the police chief, defended the raid on Sunday, saying in an email to The Associated Press that while federal law usually requires a subpoena — not just a search warrant — to raid a newsroom, there is an exception “when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.”
Cody did not give details about what that alleged wrongdoing entailed.
Cody, who was hired in late April as Marion’s police chief after serving 24 years in the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, did not respond to questions about whether police filed a probable cause affidavit for the search warrant. He also did not answer questions about how police believe Newell was victimized.
Meyer said the newspaper plans to sue the police department and possibly others, calling the raid an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s free press guarantee.
“This, the longer I think about it, is nothing short of an attempt to intimidate us, maybe to prevent us from publishing,” he said. “They didn’t have to go through this. They didn’t have to go through the drama.”
Press freedom and civil rights organizations agreed that police, the local prosecutor’s office and the judge who signed off on the search warrant overstepped their authority.
“It seems like one of the most aggressive police raids of a news organization or entity in quite some time,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. The breadth of the raid and the aggressiveness in which it was carried out seems to be “quite an alarming abuse of authority from the local police department,” Brett said.
Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement that the raid appeared to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, “and basic human decency.”
“This looks like the latest example of American law enforcement officers treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes,” Stern said. “The anti-press rhetoric that’s become so pervasive in this country has become more than just talk and is creating a dangerous environment for journalists trying to do their jobs.”
Meyer said the newspaper has been deluged with offers of help.
″We’ve had people volunteering to drive equipment up from Texas and from Indiana,” he said. “I just had the former county attorney say he would go and buy us computers and give them to us and drive them down from Kansas City.”
Beck reported from Omaha, Nebraska.
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