Free press attacked in heinous raid of Marion County Record newsroom

Police raided the Marion County Record office Aug. 11, 2023, with a search warrant that free press attorneys and advocates say violated federal law. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

News of law enforcement officers raiding a newspaper office sounds like something that happens in Russia, North Korea, China, Egypt, or any other country under the thumb of a brutal dictator bent on maintaining power.

However, it recently happened in the United States. In fact, it occurred in Marion, Kansas, as part of a blatant attack on the free press and a likely illegal attempt to silence and censor dissenting voices by ripping away journalists’ equipment needed to do their jobs.

On Aug. 11, local law enforcement stormed the Marion County Record, seizing computers, cellphones, and other reporting materials in an unprecedented assault on the First Amendment and democracy.

Like jackbooted thugs, officers also raided the home of Record owner and publisher Eric Meyer, which he shared with Joan Meyer, his 98-year-old mother and co-owner of the paper. 

The next day, after standing up to the invaders in her home, she died. Eric Meyer believes the stress of the raids contributed to her death.

The officers were acting according to a search warrant alleging “identity theft and unlawful use of a computer,” according to reporting from the Kansas Reflector. The warrant had been signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar.

This was in response to the Record receiving information that local restaurant owner Kari Newell had continued driving after losing her license because of a DUI conviction. Record reporter Phyllis Zorn attempted to verify the information using the Kansas Department of Revenue’s Kansas Driver’s License Status Check website, which is available to anyone, and motor vehicle records are subject to open records laws.

Interestingly, Viar reportedly has encountered DUI issues of her own.

Besides, according to Meyer, they weren’t planning to publish a story about it until Newell brought it up during a public city council meeting. According to KCUR, “The Record’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, said the paper did not want to publish the information because it didn’t want to get caught in the middle of Newell’s divorce proceedings.”

Around the same time, the Record was investigating new Marion Chief of Police Gideon Cody for allegations of inappropriate comments toward a female officer while with the Kansas City, Missouri, police department. 

The Kansas City Star has since reported on this as well.

Signing this warrant seems to violate federal law, which protects against searching and seizing a journalist’s materials. Instead, a subpoena should be used by law enforcement.

Now this raid, as vile as it was, has been all but confirmed to be illegal. 

As of Aug. 16, the Record got its property back after Marion County attorney Joel Ensey found “insufficient evidence exists” to support the search warrants and subsequent property seizure. 

However, let’s not forget that the Marion County Sheriff’s Office also tried to keep a flash drive that held copied files. 

That was illegal because it meant “the sheriff still has access to the Marion County Record’s data – data that is both constitutionally protected and protected by federal and state law [. . .] This access is illegal. It also clearly violates the District Court’s August 16, 2023, order,” the Record’s attorney Rhodes wrote in a letter sent to attorney Bradley Jantz, who is providing counsel to Marion County.

The sheriff agreed to destroy the flash drive and any backups.

Though news concerning this event continues to come out, as of this writing it appears that those who wish harm upon the Record are tucking their tails between their legs and trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Unfortunately, that isn’t how this works.

Judge Viar and Police Chief Cody acted in total disregard of the law, especially the Kansas Reporters’ Shield Law that was passed nearly unanimously by the Kansas House and the Kansas Senate in 2010

In a statement to the Kansas Reflector, Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the police raid is 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.”

And it won’t be.

News of the raid has traveled around the world. Outlets such as Sky News, the Daily Mail, and The Guardian have reported on it. National media organizations like Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, and numerous others have also covered the story alongside state outlets such as KWCH, KMUW, The Wichita Eagle, and the Kansas Reflector, which has provided particularly thorough and in-depth coverage of all aspects of the controversy.

It’s caused so much of a stir that Kansas lawmakers proposed legislation altering who can issue warrants, and the White House addressed the situation with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying that freedom of the press “is the core value when we think about our democracy. When you think about the cornerstone of our democracy, the freedom of press is right there.”

News and media advocacy organizations forcefully condemned the actions too. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press sent a letter to Chief Police Cody condemning the ambush of the Record and of the free press, and more than 35 other journalism organizations co-signed the message.

Additionally, the Committee to Protect Journalists has provided coverage, and the Society for Professional Journalists is raising money to support Meyer and the Record in numerous ways, one of which is by selling merchandise.

Despite the raid seeming to be an attempt to silence the newspaper, the bullies have done nothing but inspire intense attention and scrutiny of their misdeeds, which include gross abuses of power.

As George Pyle wrote for The Salt Lake Tribune, “The delicious part of all this is that the raid was apparently in response to a story the Record hadn’t wanted to publish.”

Copies of this week’s Marion County Record rest on a countertop. Staffers pulled an all-nighter to get the newspaper out after their equipment was seized by law enforcement. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

This didn’t silence the Record. It amplified it as people from around the country have become subscribers, which is vindication for the weekly newspaper and a journalist who will undoubtedly conduct harder-hitting investigations now that town leaders have shared a glimpse of their seedy practices.

At its best, journalism shines a light on the dark corners of government and society, preventing corruption and abuse from lurking in the shadows. It holds those in power to account and binds communities together by fulfilling its watchdog role. It keeps the public aware of the mundane and consequential aspects of daily life so people can make informed decisions.

Without journalism, our democracy would not function. 

Anyone who believes in and supports the U.S. Constitution should view the actions of the police and the judge as disgusting. It goes against everything the United States stands for. 

The Marion County Record may have rubbed people the wrong way in some of its reporting, and any newspaper worth its salt should. News outlets should ask tough questions and force officials to own up to their actions by answering to the communities they serve.

Journalists in Kansas need to use what happened to the Record as inspiration. They can’t let these Gestapo tactics deter them from pursuing the truth and reporting fearlessly for the betterment of their communities.

Likewise, citizens should not be kowtowed into silence, afraid to give tips and tell their stories to journalists. If that happens, tyranny will rule the day. 

Jared McClain, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, told the Kansas Reflector: “The First Amendment ensures that publications like the Marion County Record can investigate public officials without fear of reprisal. It chills the important function of journalism when police raid a newsroom, storm the homes of reporters, seize their property and gain access to their confidential sources. That’s precisely why we must hold accountable officers who retaliate against people who exercise their First Amendment rights.”

In the same article, Shannon Jankowski, PEN America’s journalism and disinformation program director, agreed: “Such egregious attempts to interfere with news reporting cannot go unchecked in a democracy.”

The temperatures have been too hot lately to let this affront to the freedom of the press chill journalism in Kansas. Instead, the heat of this attack should cause combustion, resulting in firey reporting and reignited passions for one of democracy’s core tenets.

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About toddvogts 843 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at twitter.com/toddvogts or via his website at www.toddvogts.com.