By Kevin Gosztola / The Dissenter
Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of the Marion County Record in Kansas, had worked at the newspaper for over 50 years. She died after the newspaper was targeted in illegal police raids on August 11.
Marion city police and the Marion County sheriff’s office, according to the Record, raided Meyer’s home as well as the newspaper’s office. They seized Meyer’s computer and her router.
At the newspaper’s office, officers seized cell phones, computers, the newspaper’s file server, and “other equipment unrelated to the scope of their search.”
While snatching a cellphone out of Record reporter Deb Gruver’s hand, Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody injured Gruver.
The raids effectively shut down the newspaper. They were apparently an act of retaliation brought on by local restaurant owner Kari Newell after a “confidential source” contacted the newspaper with “evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license.”
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The Record plans to file a federal lawsuit against the City of Marion and others involved in the search, especially since “legal experts” unanimously agree that several state and federal laws, including the First Amendment, were violated in the course of the raids.
Press freedom groups immediately condemned the raids and showed support for the Record.
“Based on the reporting so far, the police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves,” declared Seth Stern, the advocacy director for the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Committee to Protect Journalists president Jodie Ginsberg responded, “This kind of action by police—which we sadly see with growing frequency worldwide—has a chilling effect on journalism and on democracy more broadly. The actions of the police and the judiciary in this case must be thoroughly and swiftly investigated.”
Typically, a newspaper would be subpoenaed before the police swooped in to confiscate journalistic materials. But Laura Viar, a Morris County district court magistrate judge and former prosecutor, signed off on a broad search warrant.
The Kansas Reflector reported that the search warrant authorized police to seize “computer software and hardware, digital communications, cellular networks, servers and hard drives, items with passwords, utility records, and all documents and records pertaining to Newell. The warrant specifically targeted ownership of computers capable of being used to ‘participate in the identity theft of Kari Newell.’”
Police interpreted the warrant as permission to take all the equipment that the community newspaper uses to produce regular editions. They even “dug through” bank and investment statements that belonged to Joan Meyer’s son Eric, who was a co-owner.
“Journalists rely on confidential sources to report on matters of vital public concern. Law enforcement’s sweeping raid on The Marion County Record and confiscation of its equipment almost certainly violates federal law and puts the paper’s very ability to publish the news in jeopardy,” PEN America’s Shannon Jankowski stated.
Emily Bradbury, who is the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, told the Reflector the police raid was “unprecedented in Kansas.”
“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,” Bradbury said. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”
Since 1998, the Meyer family has owned the newspaper, which was founded in 1869.
Eric, who is also a journalism professor, told the Reflector that “he had never heard of police raiding a newspaper office during his 20 years at the Milwaukee Journal or 26 years teaching journalism at the University of Illinois.”
“It’s going to have a chilling effect on us even tackling issues,” Eric stated. He also contended that “chilling effect” would affect the newspaper’s ability to convince sources to provide information.
“Our first priority is to be able to publish next week,” Eric added. “But we also want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today. We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law.”
As for Eric’s mother, family and colleagues believe that she would still be alive if the stress and trauma from the raids had not overwhelmed her.
The 98-year-old newspaper owner lost her appetite after the raids, and she had trouble sleeping before she collapsed the following day and died.
Yet although she was distraught, Joan was thinking clearly about the police. She said, “These are Hitler tactics and something has to be done.”
Managing editor of Shadowproof, host of the “Dissenter Weekly,” co-host of the podcast “Unauthorized Disclosure,” and member of Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)