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Small town police, newspaper press freedom fight swirls after newsroom raid

Kansas police searches reportedly prompted by complaint from local restaurant owner
The offices of the Marion County Record sit across from the Marion County Courthouse in Marion, Kan., Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Marion, Kansas. Law enforcement officers raided the newspaper office and seized computers and employee cell phones in what Editor and Publisher Eric Meyer believes is an attempt to intimidate the newspaper as it examines local issues, including the police chief’s background. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

A small newspaper and a police department in Kansas are at the center of a dispute over freedom of speech that is being watched around the country after police raided the office of the local newspaper and the home of its owner and publisher.

Officials with the Marion Police Department confiscated computers and cellphones from the publisher and staff of the Marion County Record in the Friday raid, prompting press freedom watchdogs to condemn the actions of local authorities as a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution’s protection for a free press. The police searches were apparently prompted by a complaint from a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell, who accused the newspaper of invading her privacy after it obtained copies of her driving record, which included a 2008 conviction for drunk driving.

Newspaper publisher and co-owner Eric Meyer maintains that the newspaper’s aggressive coverage of local politics and Police Chief Gideon Cody’s record are the main reason for the raids. Newell says the newspaper targeted her after she ordered Meyer and a reporter out of her restaurant earlier this month during a political event.

“This is the type of stuff that, you know, that Vladimir Putin does, that Third World dictators do,” Meyer said during an interview with The Associated Press in his office.

Cody said Sunday that the raid was legal and tied to a criminal investigation.

The raids occurred in a town of about 1,900 people, nestled among rolling prairie hills, about 150 miles (241 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, making the small weekly newspaper the latest to find itself in the headlines and possibly targeted for its reporting.

Last year in New Hampshire, the publisher of a weekly newspaper accused the state attorney general’s office of government overreach after she was arrested for allegedly publishing advertisements for local races without properly marking them as political advertising. In Las Vegas, former Democratic elected official Robert Telles is scheduled to face trial in November for allegedly fatally stabbing Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German after German wrote articles critical of Telles and his managerial conduct.

Meyer said one Record reporter hurt her finger when Cody wrested her cellphone out of her hand during the raid of the newspaper. The newspaper’s surveillance video showed officers reading that reporter her rights while Cody watched, though she wasn’t arrested or detained. Newspaper employees were hustled out of the building while the search continued for more than 90 minutes, according to the footage.

Meanwhile, Meyer said, police simultaneously raided his home, seizing computers, his cellphone and the home’s internet router. He worked with his staff Sunday to reconstruct stories, ads and other materials for its next edition Wednesday.

Both Meyer and Newell have said they’ve fielded messages — and some threats — from as far away as London in the aftermath of the raids.

Newell said she threw Meyer and the reporter out of the event for Republican U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner at the request of others who are upset with the “toxic” newspaper. On the town’s main street, one storefront included a handmade “Support Marion PD” sign.”

LaTurner’s office has not returned phone messages left since Sunday at his Washington and district offices seeking comment.

While Newell accused the newspaper of unlawfully seeking information on the status of her driver’s license, 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.

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.

Cody, the police chief, indicated that a probable cause affidavit exists and was properly used to get the search warrants. When asked for a copy, Cody replied in an email late Sunday that the affidavits would be available “once charges are filed.”

Cody defended the raid on the newsroom, saying there is an exception to the federal requirement for a subpoena — not just a search warrant — to do so “when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.”

Cody, who was hired in late April as Marion’s police chief after serving 24 years in the Kansas City police, did not give details about what that alleged wrongdoing entailed and did not respond to questions about how police believe Newell was victimized.

Press freedom and civil rights organizations have said that police overstepped their authority with the raids.

Both Meyer and Newell are contemplating lawsuits — Newell against the newspaper and Meyer against the public officials who staged the raid.

Meyer also blames the home raid for stressing his 98-year-old mother enough to cause her death on Saturday. Joan Meyer was the newspaper’s co-owner.

As for the criticism of the raid as a violation of First Amendment rights, Newell said her privacy rights were violated, and they are “just as important as anybody else’s.”

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