After a police raid on a Kansas newspaper, questions mount
Law enforcement seized computers and other records from the Marion County Record on Friday, raising concerns about press freedom
Police in Kansas raided a local newspaper and its publisher’s home on Friday, seizing computers and other records — an action that sparked outrage from First Amendment advocates and that may have contributed to the death of the paper’s 98-year-old co-owner on Saturday.
The raid unfolded in Marion, a town about 60 miles north of Wichita, and appears to have stemmed from a dispute between a local restaurant owner and her estranged husband in a divorce proceeding.
The restaurant owner, Kari Newell, claimed that the newspaper, the Marion County Record, had illegally obtained damaging information about a 2008 conviction for drunken driving and was preparing to publish it, leading a local judge to issue a warrant authorizing police to seize the newspaper’s files.
The Record, a family-owned weekly serving the small town of about 1,900, didn’t publish the information about Newell’s conviction for drunken driving and has denied that it came by it illegally.
In an unbylined story, the Record called the raid “illegal” and said it had led to the death on Saturday of Joan Meyer, the paper’s co-owner and the mother of Eric Meyer, its editor and publisher.
The newspaper said Joan Meyer had been “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief” following the raid, which involved the town’s entire five-person police force.
Police raids on news organizations are almost unknown in the United States and are illegal under most circumstances under state and federal law. “This shouldn’t happen in America,” said Emily Bradbury, the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, in an interview Sunday. She added: “Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy. … We’re not going to let this stand on our watch.”
Bradbury said the newspaper’s records could have been obtained via a subpoena, a court-ordered command for specific material that is subject to legal objections, not “an unannounced search.”
Eric Meyer went further in a Record news story on Saturday, describing the seizure of the paper’s computers and cellphones as “Gestapo tactics.”
The Record had been actively investigating Police Chief Gideon Cody at the time of the raid after receiving tips that he had left his previous job in Kansas City, Mo., to avoid repercussions for alleged sexual misconduct charges, Meyer said in an interview published Saturday on the Handbasket, a newsletter by journalist Marisa Kabas. Though the paper never ran the information, details about the investigation — including the identities of those who made the allegations against Cody — were in a computer seized by police.
Meyer, a former Milwaukee Journal reporter for 20 years and professor at the University of Illinois for 26, is the son of the Record’s late editor in chief, Bill Meyer. His family bought the paper in 1998.
The raid and its aftermath followed a fast-moving sequence of events.
Newell, the restaurant owner, spoke at a public city council meeting last Monday in an effort to obtain approval for a liquor license for her catering business.
She said at the meeting that her “private personal information” — records of her drunken driving conviction and other driving violations — had been illegally obtained by a reporter and had been shared with a council member, Ruth Herbel.
The records could undermine Newell’s license application. State law prohibits issuing liquor licenses to applicants with felony DUI convictions.
She accused Herbel of “recklessly and negligently” sharing the information with “others” in violation of state privacy and identity-theft laws. Herbel denied doing so.
Instead, in a news story following Newell’s accusation, Eric Meyer wrote that the paper obtained the information about Newell from “a source who contacted the Record via social media and independently sent the material to both the newspaper” and to Herbel.
The newspaper said it verified the source’s claim that the information had come from a government database, but decided not to publish it out of concern that the source may have obtained the records through illicit means. The paper also notified the county sheriff and city police chief about the leak.
Meyer wrote that Newell had verified the accuracy of the information in a conversation with the newspaper immediately after the council meeting.
She indicated, according to Meyer, that she believed that her estranged husband was behind the disclosure as part of a divorce proceeding in which he sought to retain ownership of the couple’s vehicles on grounds that she didn’t possess a license.
According to Meyer, Herbel, the councilwoman, alerted Marion’s city administrator about the alleged records breach, advising him that police should investigate.
Tensions between the paper and Newell had flared a few days before the city council hearing when Newell hosted a campaign event for Rep. Jake LaTurner (R) at Newell’s restaurant in Marion. At the time, Newell asked police to bar Meyer and another Record reporter from the event.
Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, citing possible identity theft and illegal use of a computer, authorized the search of the newspaper’s offices and the Meyers’ residence Friday morning.
A state law passed in 2022 defines identity theft as having the intent to “misrepresent [another] person in order to subject that person to economic or bodily harm.”
However, the exact justification for the search warrant isn’t known, because the judge hasn’t released the affidavit supporting it. The affidavit would have been filed by Marion County officials.
First Amendment advocates continue to question the raid.
On Sunday, more than 30 news organizations and press groups, including The Washington Post, wrote an open letter to Marion Police Chief Cody condemning the action. “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,” wrote the group, headed by the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Bradbury, the press association director, said her group would support the Record if it challenged local officials in court. “No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, everyone should be concerned” about “government overreach and trying to silence investigative work.”