Kansas police condemned over newsroom raid

An empty spot on reporter Phyllis Zorn's desk shows where the tower for her computer sat before law enforcement officers seized it in a raid on the Marion County Record, Aug 13, 2023, in Marion County, Kansas. [AP Photo]

The police raids Friday of a local Kansas newspaper's office and the home of its owner have stunned news organizations around the United States, who are widely condemning the incident as a violation of the First Amendment.

Last Friday morning, the police department in Marion County, Kansas, raided the offices of the local weekly newspaper the Marion County Record, seizing computers, phones and the file server, as well as personal cellphones of staff members, based on a search warrant.

At the same time, police also raided the home of Eric Meyer, the newspaper's publisher and co-owner, and seized his computers, cellphone and internet router.

"A raid of the scale against the Marion County Record is pretty unprecedented. At the very least, it's extremely rare. It might be the first instance of it happening in exactly this way," Clayton Weimers, executive director of the U.S. bureau of Reporters Without Borders, told VOA.

The search warrant linked the raids, led by Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, to a quarrel between the newspaper and Kari Newell, a local restaurant owner.

Newell accused the newspaper of invading her privacy and illegally accessing information about her, including a 2008 drunken driving conviction against her, The Associated Press reported. She also suggested the newspaper targeted her after she threw Meyer and a reporter out of a restaurant during a political event.

The paper has said it obtained the information legally and used public online records to verify details.

Newell told the AP, "I fully believe that the intent was to do harm and merely tarnish my reputation, and I think if — had it been left at that— I don't think that it would have blown up as big as it was."

Meyer has said in interviews that he thinks the paper's coverage of local politics also played a role in prompting the raids. He said the Marion County Record was also investigating Cody's past work with the Kansas City, Missouri, police.

Meyer's 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, who was a co-owner of the Record and lived at the same address, collapsed and died Saturday, the AP reported. Meyer has said he blames the stress of the home raid for her death.

VOA reached out to Meyer to request an interview but as of late Monday had not had a response.

On Sunday, over 30 news organizations and press freedom groups wrote a letter to Cody, saying "There appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search."

"Newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech by the press and the public," the letter also said.

Data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker shows that out of over 90 instances of search and seizures against journalists documented since 2017, nine have involved search warrants.

A similar case took place in 2019, when San Francisco police used a search warrant to raid the home and office of independent journalist Bryan Carmody. Police were looking for the source of a confidential police report about San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi's death.

In May, the FBI used a search warrant to raid the home and office of independent journalist Tim Burke in Tampa, Florida, over hacking allegations.

These kinds of strategies are often designed to silence journalists, according to Beth Francesco, executive director of the National Press Club Journalism Institute in Washington.

"This type of overreach can have a chilling effect and ultimately affects the communities that need the information," she told VOA. "These tactics are often used to silence the media and to keep citizens in the dark about what's happening in their communities."

The Marion County Police Department did not reply to VOA's email requesting comment.

In an email to the AP, Cody defended the raid as legal, saying that while federal law typically requires a subpoena — not just a search warrant — to raid a newsroom, there is an exception "when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing."

In a post on Facebook defending the department's approach, Cody wrote, "I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated."