By Tom Ozimek
Police in the small Kansas town of Marion have raided a local newspaper office and the home of its publisher, seizing equipment and sparking claims of abuse of power and threats of legal action.
Eric Meyer, the owner and publisher of the Marion County Record, said in an Aug. 9 edition of the newspaper that four Marion police officers and three sheriff’s deputies recently carried out a raid on his home and the Record office, seizing personal cell phones and computers.
Mr. Meyer said that the police also seized the newspaper’s file server and equipment that was unrelated to their search but which was needed to continue publishing work.
“Our first priority is to be able to publish next week,” Mr. Meyer was cited by the Record as saying. “But we also want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today.”
A reporter for the Record said on social media that she was injured in the raid, which she called “chilling.”
“The chief of the Marion, Kansas Police Department, Gideon Cody, forcibly yanked my cell phone out of my hand, so heads up that I will be without it (my phone, not my hand) for a while,” reporter Deb Gruver wrote in a post on Facebook.
“I’ve filed a report with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation because a previously dislocated finger was re-injured,” she added.
“I thought I lived in the United States,” she wrote.
The search warrant, which was viewed by The Epoch Times, identifies several pages of items that law enforcement officers were allowed to seize and indicates that the raid was related to suspicion of having participated in identity theft of local business owner Kari Newell.
Questions have been raised about the legality of the search warrant, which was signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, as there are protections in federal law against searching and seizing materials from journalists. Normally, law enforcement is required to obtain a subpoena for such materials.
Ms. Viar’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on questions about the legality of the warrant.
The Marion County police chief told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement that he cannot give details of what he said was a criminal investigation, but explained that there are exceptions to a subpoena, namely when “when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.”
“I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated,” Mr. Cody said.
The raid was based on a search warrant that focuses on allegations that there was probable cause of identity theft and “unlawful computer acts” targeting Ms. Newell.
A confidential source had contacted the Record with evidence that Ms. Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to operate her vehicle without a license, according to the Kansas Reflector.
A reporter with the Record reportedly verified the information provided by the source but Mr. Meyer decided not to publish a story about the information, telling the Kansas Reflector that he thought “we were being set up.” Instead, he said he contacted the police.
However, after the police notified Ms. Newell about the sensitive information provided by the source to the Record, she reportedly publicly accused the paper at a city council meeting that it had illegally obtained and disseminated the documents.
Ms. Newell’s public remarks at the meeting prompted Mr. Meyer to write an article apparently seeking to set the record straight, with the police raid taking place one day after.
While Ms. Newell was unavailable for comment, she said in a statement cited by the Kansas Reflector that the “entire debacle was brought forth in an attempt to smear my name, jeopardize my licensing through ABC (state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division), harm my business, seek retaliation, and for personal leverage in an ongoing domestic court battle.”
Mr. Meyer said he plans to sue the city of Marion and individuals involved in the raid.
“We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law,” he said, per the Record.
Journalist Joel Mathis, who writes for the Kansas City Star, said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that his first-ever newspaper job was for the Record.
“Since we don’t know the full details behind the raid … I’m not going to get into all the nitty-gritty,” he wrote in an Aug. 12 op-ed in the Kansas City Star. “But it’s scary when police raid a newspaper. It looks and smells like a threat to the First Amendment. Investigators had better have a damned good—even extraordinary—justification for the search warrant. God help them otherwise.”
Clay Wirestone, the opinion editor for the Kansas Reflector, said in a post on X that the raid amounts to a threatening message being sent to journalists.
“No matter how the story shakes out—if officials return all the seized computers and cellphones this afternoon—a message has been sent,” he wrote. “That message conflicts with the tenets of an open society. It shuts down the ability of democracy’s defenders to do their jobs.”
In an op-ed in the Kansas Reflector, Mr. Wirestone called the “outrageous” raid a “grim threat to Kansans’ First Amendment rights.”
Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said in a statement cited by Mr. Wirestone in the Kansas Reflector that the raid represented a crackdown on free speech.
“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. This cannot be allowed to stand,” Ms. Bradbury was cited as saying.
In a statement obtained by The Epoch Times, the Marion Kansas Police Department said in its defense that the “victim asks that we do all the law allows to ensure justice is served” and that the department will do “nothing less.”
The department said it “believes it is the fundamental duty of the police is to ensure the safety, security, and well-being of all members of the public” and that its commitment to doing so 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.”