Editorial: Why the raid of a Kansas newspaper went global
The law enforcement raid on the Marion County (Kansas) Record, that became a global news story the day after on Aug. 12, is worse than it first appeared — and that was awful.
First, the raid itself was way over-the-top. The entire local police and sheriff’s department entered the newspaper’s offices, search warrant in hand, and confiscated personal computers, personal cell phones, the newspaper’s server, notebooks, and whatever else they chose to take as was their due given an overly broad search warrant. The same law enforcement officers then raided the home of the news editor/publisher, Eric Meyer, and his 98-year-old mother, Joan, a former publisher and long-time co-owner of the paper, and the home of Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel of the city council. Joan Meyer died a day after the raid, caused in part her doctor said, from the added stress.
Second, the search warrant, signed by Marion County Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, alleged probable cause to investigate identify theft and unlawful acts with computers. What’s ridiculous is that the information the paper allegedly had was not only on a public database (a previous DUI conviction dating back to 2008, which is public record, as well as driving with a suspended license), but the paper chose not to use the information, even though it involved a local restaurateur who was seeking a liquor license.
Moreover, the prelude to the raid was a chaotic city council meeting days earlier in which Newell, 46, was supposed to talk about her liquor license application but instead started an out-of-control rant alleging the newspaper and Herbel got information about her former conviction of driving under the influence illegally. That’s when Meyer defended the newspaper to say an anonymous source had supplied the information, but he chose not to pursue the story and had turned the information over to the local police days before the raid. (A background fact is that Newell is currently in divorce proceedings, which one news report alleged as less than amicable.)
What also has come out is that the newspaper was researching facts behind the hiring of the town’s new police chief, Gideon Cody, who, according to reports from the Kansas City Star, had left a position as captain in that city’s force following serious allegations of improper conduct before taking the chief’s position in Marion this past April.
The other odd player is Viar. She was appointed this past January to fill the remaining year of a four-year term vacated by the previous judge. That is, she’s been on the job less than a year. Moreover, she has two prior DUI convictions, and one conviction involved driving the car of a male magistrate judge into a tree. The Wichita Eagle covers the story in detail, but we’ll just say, it’s complicated and not flattering.
To sum up, what you have is a 46-year-old divorcee upset her prior DUI charges might prevent her from getting a liquor license. She flies off the handle at a city council meeting (you can watch it on the city council’s tape of the meeting) alleging the newspaper used its computers illegally to verify her DUI charges. She then convinces the new police chief to get a search warrant to raid the newspaper, who is also interested in seeing what the newspaper might have found about his dismissal with the Kansas City police force. The warrant is then written by a new magistrate judge with little experience and who has shown, in the not too distant past, the poor judgment to drink excessively and drive — twice.
That’s just to say the search warrant was a trumped-up charge from the get-go that the magistrate judge, the sheriff and the local police chief should have known was illegal. And even if there were a shred of validity to Newell’s complaint, the normal course of action would have been to subpoena the newspaper’s communications and records regarding Newell and let the courts decide what, if anything, the Record had to turn over.
On that point, the law is clear: The federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980 clearly requires law enforcement to obtain a subpoena prior to any search of the press. As the Iola (Kansas) Register wrote in its editorial following the raid, since the law passed there is “well-established legal precedent that information a newspaper has obtained is protected, even if those who passed the materials on to the newspaper obtained it illegally. This is why news outlets were able to report on documents Edward Snowden sent them. It’s why the White House lost its battle to stop the New York Times from printing the Pentagon Papers… The idea is that law enforcement should always seek the least intrusive approach with the press. And with good reason. No government agency has the right to shut down a newspaper.”
That the search warrant was overruled and rescinded four days later — with all computers, cell phones and reporting notes returned to the newspaper — tells the world how bogus the charges were.
Too late, however. The paper intends to sue those involved — and with good cause. That’s because the motive of the raid was to, at the very least, stifle a local newspaper from doing its job. The raids were something that dictators like Russia’s Putin, or other dictatorial regimes, might contrive to silence the press, or as Joan Meyer said hours before she died, “These are Hitler tactics and something has to be done.”
Still, there’s more to the story. In short, the paper under Eric Meyer’s tenure this past couple of years, has pursued the “watchdog” role of all papers more aggressively than his parents had for the previous several decades. According to a recent behind-the-scene story in the New York Times, that’s caused friction between the paper and town and school leaders, members of the business community, and others. While Meyer defends the paper’s coverage and points to flattering stories of local residents, businesses and do-good events, he suggests his toughness on many cases has been warranted. Townspeople aren’t as convinced and some, according to the Times story, would prefer to see the paper only cover the good news in town.
Such schisms in a community, and misunderstanding of the paper’s role, might have led the local police to believe they would be supported in shutting down the paper for any reason. It’s the type of mentality, just as many Trump supporters believed they were right to try to overturn an election, that seeps into society and sets the stage to weaken our democracy. It’s why this story has had such national and global resonance.
While the spotlight shines on Marion County as it sorts out this injustice to The Record, it’s worth noting the value of the community reporting such newspapers do — as well as the importance of local law enforcement officials who respect the law, and the rights of a free press, and seek to avoid such egregious missteps.
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