Threats to Press Freedom in America: Raid on Office of Kansas Paper

Threats to Press Freedom in America: Raid on Office of Kansas Paper

Marion, Kansas' local law enforcement confiscated mobile phones, computers, and other materials from the Marion County Record's office, its journalists, and the residence of its publisher, as per a report by the Kansas Reflector, a non-profit news outlet. The action followed the disclosure of information about a local restaurant owner to the newspaper by an anonymous source. Eric Meyer, who owns and publishes the Record, stated that the raid seemed intended to send a message to reporters: "Stay out of matters that don't concern you, or face consequences."

The operation involved all five officers from the city's police force and two sheriff's deputies, who seized "everything we have," Meyer remarked. The Kansas Reflector suggested that this search might have violated federal safeguards for journalists. The search warrant, authorized by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, appears to contradict federal law that safeguards journalists from having their materials searched and confiscated; the law necessitates law enforcement to acquire materials through subpoenas. Viar did not respond to inquiries regarding this incident, including why she sanctioned a potentially unlawful raid.

The newspaper had previously reported that Kari Newell, the local restaurant owner, had expelled members of the press from a meeting with Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kansas). In response, Newell posted what the Reflector described as "hostile comments" on her Facebook page. Subsequently, an intricate chain of events unfolded, involving an anonymous source leaking details to the newspaper about Newell's conviction for driving under the influence and her subsequent driving without a license. The decision was made not to publish these details after suspicions arose that they might have been provided by Newell's husband, who was going through a divorce.

Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, further reported that 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.”

Meyer informed the police about the leak, which led to Newell being informed. She wrongly accused the newspaper of unlawfully obtaining information and, as a result, the police executed a search warrant at the Record's office and Newell's residence. The search warrant listed various items that law enforcement was authorized to seize, including computer hardware and software, digital communications, servers, cellular networks, documents, and records related to Newell. The warrant was specifically focused on identifying computers capable of participating in "the identity theft of Kari Newell."

Among the seized computers were legal announcements and advertisements slated for the upcoming issue of the newspaper. Meyer expressed uncertainty about the next steps but asserted that they would still publish something.