(MARION, Kan.) — A police raid on a small-town Kansas newspaper is prompting a First Amendment fight.
Surveillance video of the raid on the family-owned Marion County Record newsroom obtained by ABC News shows a police officer reading Miranda Rights to a reporter and other officers taking photos and seizing computer equipment and cell phones.
The search warrant was executed Friday on the newspaper and on the home of its co-owner, Joan Meyer, the Marion Police Department confirmed in a statement to ABC News.
The police raid was prompted by a complaint from a prominent local business owner and critic of the newspaper, who accused two city council members at a public meeting of illegally disseminating confidential criminal information about her.
Eric Meyer, the publisher of the Record, said his newspaper was tipped off about the business owner’s driving record but never published a story about it.
“These are Hitler tactics, and something has to be done,” Joan Meyer told the Wichita Eagle newspaper after her home and business were raided.
It turned out to be among Joan Meyer’s last words. Less than two years before her centennial birthday, she died on Saturday after, according to her son, complaining that she was too stressed out by the raid to eat or sleep.
“How dare they take the last day of her life and make her filled with fear and anger,” Eric Meyer told ABC News.
He said that up until her death, his mother, a newspaper woman since the 1950s, was still writing a weekly column about memories.
“It’s everything you’ve ever heard of in the third world,” Eric Meyer said of the police raid. “It really is like we’re living in Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”
On Monday, the newspaper’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, sent a letter to Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, accusing him and his officers of a “heavy-handed” move and advising him that the newspaper intends “take every step to obtain relief” for the damages the raid caused. In the letter, shared with ABC News, Rhodes offered Cody an “opportunity to mitigate” the damages “from the illegal searches you personally authorized, directed and conducted.”
Rhodes wrote that the police “plainly violated the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as Sections 11, 15, and 18 of the Kansas Bill of Rights,” and he urged the police department to refrain from viewing any of the materials seized from the newspaper until a judge can hear the case.
Rhodes’ letter also invoked the death of Joan Meyer, whom he said told officers during the raid — “these are Hitler tactics.”
“She is right,” Rhodes said in his letter. “Your personal decision to treat the local newspaper as a drug cartel or a street gang offends the constitutional protections the founding fathers gave the free press.”
How the complaint against the Record surfaced
During an Aug. 7, Marion City Council meeting, which was recorded and posted to the council’s YouTube page, a local restaurant owner, who identified herself as Kari Newell, stood up and accused two of the council members of “recklessly and negligently” sharing information about her driving record “with others without doing the due diligence of making sure that the information they were sharing was at least legal information…”
“I’m bringing it to you guys’ attention that this is going to be placed with the county attorney, that there was a driver’s privacy protection act that was breached by you and the individual that shared that information with you,” Newell said at the council meeting. “I’m very disappointed that as a representative of our community, in your elected position, that you would behave so negligently and maliciously.”
Newell could not be reached for comment by ABC News.
Thirty-four news and media groups condemn raid
The search of the newspaper and Meyer’s home has garnered attention from national media groups, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which sent Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody a letter condemning the raid as unconstitutional. The letter was co-signed by 34 news and media organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The AP.
The Society of Professional Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists, which both co-signed the letter, also committed $20,000 to a legal defense fund established to help the Record.
“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 said.
The letter goes on to say: “There appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search — particularly when other investigative steps may have been available — and we are concerned that it may have violated federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to conduct newsroom searches.”
In a statement to ABC News, Cody said there are exceptions to the federal law, specifically noting, “When there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.”
Eric Meyer denied his staff was involved in any wrongdoing and that his reporters even notified the Marion Police Department of the tip the newspaper got on the local business owner, but the agency never responded.
In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the Marion Police Department said it could not disclose details on a “criminal investigation.” The statement added that “when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated.”
In the statement, the police department agreed that the federal Privacy Protection Act “does protect journalists from most searches of newsrooms by federal and state law enforcement officials.”
“It is true that in most cases, it 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,” according to the police statement.
According to the search warrant executed at the newspaper and at Meyer’s home, police contend they had “probable cause” to believe identity theft and unlawful acts concerning computers “has been committed.”
“The Marion Kansas Police Department believes it is the fundamental duty of the police to ensure the safety, security, and well-being of all members of the public. This commitment must remain steadfast and unbiased, unaffected by political or media influences, in order to uphold the principles of justice, equal protection, and the rule of law for everyone in the community,” the police department’s statement reads. “The victim asks that we do all the law allows to ensure justice is served. The Marion Kansas Police Department will do nothing less.”
Eric Meyer said he is determined to ensure that the police raid does not have a chilling effect on his newspaper’s aggressive coverage of Marion County.
“If they think I’m going to give up because they’ve made it difficult for us to put out a newspaper for one week, they’ve got another thing coming,” Meyer said.
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