A police raid of a Kansas newsroom raises alarms about violations of press freedom
Updated August 14, 2023 at 9:55 AM ET
Law enforcement officers in Kansas raided the office of a local newspaper and a journalist's home on Friday, prompting outrage over what First Amendment experts are calling a likely violation of federal law.
The police department in Marion, Kansas — a town of about 2,000 — raided the Marion County Record under a search warrant signed by a county judge. Officers confiscated computers, cellphones, reporting materials and other items essential to the weekly paper's operations.
"It took them several hours," Eric Meyer, the Marion County Record's co-owner and publisher, told NPR. "They forbid our staff to come into the newspaper office during that time."
Local authorities said they were investigating the newsroom for "identity theft," according to the warrant. The raid was linked to alleged violations of a local restaurant owner's privacy, when journalists obtained information about her driving record.
Publisher says raid contributed to his mother's death
Meyer's mother, Joan Meyer, collapsed and died one day after police raided her home, the Record reported in an update. She was the newspaper's co-owner.
Joan Meyer was 98 and was "otherwise in good health for her age," the newspaper said. But, it added, she had been unable to eat or sleep after police entered her home Friday under a search warrant.
Joan Meyer "tearfully watched during the raid as police not only carted away her computer and a router used by an Alexa smart speaker but also dug through her son Eric's personal bank and investments statements to photograph them," according to the Record.
Without the devices, she was left unable to stream shows onto her TV or use devices if she needed help, the newspaper said. It also alleged that during the police operation, officers seized a number of devices that went beyond the search warrant's scope and were unrelated to their apparent investigation.
Officers came to Meyer's home around the same time police seized computers, cellphones and other equipment during a search of the Record's offices.
Another injury occurred, the newspaper said, when police chief Gideon Cody "forcibly grabbed" a cellphone from reporter Deb Gruver, alleging that the act injured Gruver's finger that had previously been dislocated.
The raid appears to violate federal law
Newsroom raids are rare in the United States, said Lynn Oberlander, a First Amendment attorney.
"It's very rare because it's illegal," Oberlander said. "It doesn't happen very often because most organizations understand that it's illegal."
Several media law experts told NPR the raid appears to be a violation of federal law, which protects journalists from this type of action. The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 broadly prohibits law enforcement officials from searching for or seizing information from reporters.
Oberlander said exceptions to the Privacy Protection Act are "important but very limited."
One such exception allows authorities to raid a newsroom if the journalists themselves are suspected to be involved in the crime at hand. In a statement sent to NPR, Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody cited this exception to justify his department's raid of the Marion County Record.
"It is true that in most cases, [the Privacy Protection Act] requires police to use subpoenas, rather than search warrants, to search the premises of journalists unless they themselves are suspects in the offense that is the subject of the search," Cody said.
But Oberlander said that exception doesn't apply when the alleged crime is connected to newsgathering — which appears to be the case in Marion.
"It raises concern for me," Oberlander said. "It normalizes something that shouldn't be happening — that Congress has said should not happen, that the First Amendment says should not happen."
Ken White, a First Amendment litigator, said police raids of newsrooms used to be more common in the U.S., which led Congress to bolster federal protections against such searches.
White said the police raid of the Marion County Record could also be a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from "unreasonable" searches and seizures by the government. The search warrant in Marion, signed by county magistrate judge Laura Viar on Friday morning, allowed officers to confiscate a wide range of items, from computers and hardware to reporting documents.
"It's an abuse of power by the police and it's a serious dereliction of duty by the judge who signed off on it," White said.
Viar could not immediately be reached for comment.
Identity theft allegations
Meyer, the Marion County Record's publisher, said local restaurateur Kari Newell accused the paper of illegally obtaining drunk-driving records about her.
But the paper, Meyer said, received this information about Newell from a separate source, independently verified it on the Kansas Department of Revenue's Division of Vehicles website — and decided not to publish it. The paper instead opted to notify local police.
The search warrant, as published by the Kansas Reflector and verified by the police chief, specifically allowed officers to confiscate documents and records pertaining to "the identity theft of Kari Newell." The warrant also ties the search to "unlawful acts concerning computers" that were used to access the Kansas Department of Revenue records website.
"We never attempted to steal anyone's identity," Meyer said.
Jeff Kosseff, a law professor at the United States Naval Academy who specializes in the First Amendment, said he was surprised the county judge found there was sufficient probable cause to sign off on the search warrant. Kosseff said there would need to be "a whole lot more for this to be a correct decision."
"I can't imagine a scenario in which all of these other protections would be overcome to allow a raid on a newsroom," Kosseff said, referencing the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment and the Privacy Protection Act. "This raid has been more than just potentially compromising sources. This has threatened the ability of the newsroom to operate altogether — and that's why we have these protections."
James Risen, former director of the Press Freedom Defense Fund, called the raid an "outrageous abuse of power by the local authorities."
Risen said all authorities involved in the raid should be investigated for carrying it out.
"There's lots of precedent for bad behavior of local officials against the press," Risen said. "In each case, it has to be called out and stopped if we're going to protect the First Amendment in this country."
Meyer said the confiscation of the paper's computers and phones makes it difficult to continue operations — but the paper, which has five full-time staffers, still plans to publish its weekly edition this Wednesday.
And, Meyer added, he's working with an attorney to challenge the police's right to inspect the items they confiscated.
"We cannot let this stand. They cannot put us out of business over this," Meyer said. "That just is too bad of a precedent to set for the United States, to allow anything like that to happen."
Emily Olson contributed reporting.
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