A small town in Kansas has become a battleground over the First Amendment, after the local police force and county sheriff’s deputies raided the office of The Marion County Record.
Raids of news organizations are exceedingly rare in the United States, with its long history of legal protections for journalists. At The Record, a family-owned paper with a circulation of about 4,000, the police seized computers, servers and cellphones of reporters and editors. They also searched the home of the publication’s owner and semiretired editor as well as the home of a city councilwoman.
The searches, conducted on Friday, appeared to be linked to an investigation into how a document containing information about a local restaurateur found its way to the local newspaper — and whether the restaurant owner’s privacy was violated in the process. The editor of the newspaper said the raids may have had more to do with tensions between the paper and officials in Marion, a town of about 2,000 north of Wichita, over prior coverage.
The raid is one of several recent cases of local authorities taking aggressive actions against news organizations — some of which are part of a dwindling cohort left in their area to hold governments to account. And it fits a pattern of pressure being applied to local newsrooms. One recent example is the 2019 police raid of the home of Bryan Carmody, a freelance journalist in San Francisco, who was reporting on the death of Jeff Adachi, a longtime public defender.
“There’s a lot of healthy tension between the government and newspapers, but this?” Emily Bradbury, the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said in an interview about the raid in Marion. She warned that the raid was a dangerous attack on press freedom in the country.
“This is not right, this is wrong, this cannot be allowed to stand,” she said.
The newspaper’s owner and editor, Eric Meyer, said in an interview that the newspaper had done nothing wrong. The newspaper did not publish an article about the government record, though Mr. Meyers said that it had received a copy from a confidential source and that one of its reporters had verified its authenticity using the state’s records available online.
“I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated,” Mr. Cody said. He declined to discuss the investigation in detail.
On Sunday, more than 30 news organizations and press freedom advocates, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Dow Jones, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, signed a letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to Mr. Cody condemning the raid.
The Marion County Record is uncommonly aggressive for its size. Mr. Meyer said that the newspaper, which has seven employees, has stoked the ire of some local leaders for its vigorous reporting on Marion County officials, including asking questions about Mr. Cody’s employment history.
The paper is overseen by Mr. Meyer, who is 69 and has had a long career in journalism, working as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal and a professor at the University of Illinois. He also has a family connection to The Marion County Record: His father, Bill, worked there for half a century beginning in 1948, rising to be its top editor.
In 1998, his family bought the newspaper and two others nearby — the Hillsboro Star-Journal and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin — from the previous publisher, the Hoch family, who had owned them for 124 years.
The dispute over the government record that led to the raid might not have become an issue if not for a tip that came after a meet-and-greet held on Aug. 2 for the local congressman, Jake LaTurner, at Kari’s Kitchen, an establishment owned by Kari Newell, a local restaurateur.
Ms. Newell asked the police chief to remove Mr. Meyer and a reporter, Phyllis Zorn, from the event, saying that she did not want them to attend.
After the newspaper published an article about the episode, Ms. Zorn received a private message on Facebook, Mr. Meyer said, from someone who shared a letter to Ms. Newell from the Kansas Department of Revenue. The letter detailed the steps she needed to take to restore her driver’s license, which had been suspended after a drunken driving citation in 2008, according to the newspaper.
Last Monday, Ms. Newell appeared at a City Council meeting seeking approval to operate a liquor-serving establishment. She accused the newspaper at the meeting of illegally obtaining the letter and giving it to a councilwoman, Ruth Herbel. Ms. Herbel, whose home was also searched on Friday, did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Meyer said that the newspaper had not shared the document with Ms. Herbel. He added that Ms. Newell had later told the newspaper that the release of the information might have been related to her ongoing divorce proceedings.
A search warrant for the raid, issued by a judge roughly an hour before the search on Friday morning, mentions Ms. Newell and cited potential violations of laws involving identity theft and the illegal use of a computer. The latter, among other things, forbids using a computer “with the intent to defraud or to obtain money, property, services or any other thing of value by means of false or fraudulent pretense or representation.”
A spokesperson for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which aids criminal justice agencies statewide, said on Saturday that the Marion police approached the bureau to help with an investigation into “illegal access and dissemination of confidential criminal justice information.” In a statement on Sunday, the bureau noted the importance of a free press, but added, “No one is above the law, whether a public official or a representative of the media.”
Although news organizations are sometimes the targets of legal actions by government officials, including subpoenas seeking interview notes and other records, the search and seizure of the tools to produce journalism are rare.
Seth Stern, advocacy director at Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of journalists and whistle-blowers, said federal law allowed the police to search journalists when the authorities have probable cause to believe the journalists had committed a crime unrelated to their journalism. That exception does not apply, however, in a case where the alleged crime is gathering the news, he said. When journalists are suspected of committing crimes as part of news gathering, the government’s option is to serve a subpoena, which can be challenged in court before it is enforced.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m allowed to raid the newsroom because I’m investigating a crime,’ if the crime you’re investigating is journalism,” he added.
The police chief, Mr. Cody, who started in the job this spring, and Ms. Newell argued that journalists are subject to search if they themselves are suspects in the offense being investigated. Ms. Newell said that someone had unlawfully used her identity to obtain private information about her online.
In a phone interview, Ms. Newell framed the dispute as a straightforward violation of her privacy by the newspaper rather than a First Amendment battle.
“There’s a huge difference between vindictive and vindication,” Ms. Newell said. “I firmly believe that this was a vindictive move, full of malice. And I hope in the end, I receive vindication.”
The newspaper, which publishes weekly on Wednesdays, is scrambling to put out the next edition without most of its computers and servers, which contained articles as well as ads and public notices.
Mr. Meyer said he had never experienced government pressure like this.
“If we don’t fight back and we don’t win in fighting back, it’s going to silence everybody,” he said.
He had returned full time to Marion during the Covid-19 pandemic and stayed on, retiring from his university post and spending more time writing and editing for the newspaper, and living with his 98-year-old mother. He said he does not receive a salary, though he receives an annual bonus if the company turns a profit at the end of the year.
On Saturday, his mother died. In an article published online on Saturday evening, the newspaper connected Joan Meyer’s death to the search, writing that it had made her “stressed beyond her limits.” The headline: “Illegal raids contribute to death of newspaper co-owner.”
Jack Begg contributed research.