The Marion County Record is a small, family-owned newspaper in Marion, Kansas — about 60 miles north of Wichita. It has seven employees and a circulation of about 4,000.
But this little publication is at the center of a controversy that involves nothing less than democracy, press freedoms and the First Amendment.
On Friday, the town’s entire five-person police department, along with two sheriff’s deputies, raided the newspaper offices and the home of the paper’s co-owner and publisher. That co-owner, Eric Meyer, told the Kansas Reflector that the police took “everything we have.”
On Saturday, a day after the raid, Joan Meyer, Eric Meyer’s mother and the 98-year-old co-owner of the paper, collapsed and died at her home. The Record said Joan Meyer had been “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief.”
Danielle Coffey, president of the News/Media Alliance:
“The police raids on the Marion County newspaper not only threatens to chill the important work of these journalists, but also represents an attack on the independence of the free press which our democracy so heavily relies upon. The News/Media Alliance stands in support of the journalists of the Marion County newspaper and calls for immediate accountability for this injustice.”
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
Letter signed by Reporters Committee and 34 news media and press freedom organizations:
"On August 11, 2023, law enforcement officers with the Marion Police Department executed a search warrant at the Marion County Record’s newsroom and at its publisher’s home, and seized the Record’s electronic newsgathering equipment, work product, and documentary material.
"The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (the “Reporters Committee”) and the undersigned 34 news media and press freedom organizations write to condemn that raid. 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."
Dean Ridings, CEO of America's Newspapers:
"The raid on The Marion County Record goes directly against the First Amendment rights that our country holds in esteem. Newspapers must be able to do their jobs without fear of reprisal or interference. We stand in support of the Marion County Record."
National Press Club and National Press Club Journalism Institute:
Eileen O'Reilly, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute:
"We are shocked and outraged by this brazen violation of press freedom by authorities in Marion County, Kansas. Local law enforcement agencies reportedly searched the offices of the Marion County Record and the home of its publisher, and seized reporting materials including computers and cell phones, injuring a reporter's finger in the process.
"We are deeply concerned that a Kansas judge issued a search warrant authorizing this search even though the federal law clearly requires authorities to use subpoenas rather than search warrants if they seek to access records of a news organization in the course of an investigation.
"A law enforcement raid of a newspaper office is deeply upsetting anywhere in the world. It is especially concerning in the United States, where we have strong and well-established legal protections guaranteeing the freedom of the press.
"This search violated the rights of the journalists at the Marion County Record to serve their community by gathering and reporting the news. We stand by the Marion County Record in its efforts to continue publishing despite the seizure of important reporting material and equipment. We demand local authorities return the reporting equipment to the Marion County Record immediately, and we expect a full investigation by appropriate state and federal authorities into why this search warrant was requested, authorized and executed."
Society of Professional Journalists:
Press Release | SPJ
The Society of Professional Journalists is deeply concerned about the raid on Friday of the Marion County Record newsroom in Kansas. SPJ is offering help covering up to $20,000 in legal fees for the newsroom, and condemns this brazen action taken by law enforcement to stop the flow of information.
“By all accounts, the raid was an egregious attack on freedom of the press, the First Amendment and all the liberties we hold dear as journalists in this great country,” SPJ National President Claire Regan said during an emergency board meeting on Sunday to approve funding to the newspaper. “From the moment they learned about the raid, SPJ members have been speaking up and stepping forward to demand justice, hold the responsible accountable and support the Record staff in their recovery.”
The SPJ Board of Directors unanimously approved allocating up to $20,000 from the Legal Defense Fund to assist the Marion County Record with legal costs. SPJ also joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 33 other news media and press freedom organizations in a letter to Marion Chief of Police Gideon Cody condemning the raid.
“In short, the search warrant directed at the Marion County Record was significantly overbroad, improperly intrusive, and possibly in violation of federal law,” the letter states. “Again, and crucially, we urge you to immediately return any seized equipment and records to the newspaper; purge any such records retained by your department; and initiate a full, independent, and transparent review into your department’s actions.”
“The newsroom is sacrosanct; interrupting its operation is a threat to democracy,” Regan said. “SPJ offers its full support to the staff of the Marion County Record following this outrageous attack on freedom of the press.”
The SPJ Legal Defense Fund is a unique account that can be tapped for providing journalists with legal or direct financial assistance. The committee works throughout the year raising funds for LDF. More information about the Fund can be found here.
Kansas Press Association:
Emily Bradbury, executive director, Kansas Press Association:
"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. In our opinion, the proper procedure would have been to use subpoena power to obtain the records — not an unannounced search on a news outlet. This sets a terrible precedent and we will support the newspaper in seeking legal remedies for this egregious overreach."
National Newspaper Association:
John Galer, chair of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Journal-News, Hillsboro, Illinois, last night strongly objected to news of a police raid on the offices of one of its member newspapers, the Marion County Record, Marion, Kansas.
"Newsroom raids in this country receded into history 50 years ago. Today, law enforcement agencies by and large understand that gathering information from newsrooms is a last resort and then done only with subpoenas that protect the rights of all involved. For a newspaper to be intimidated by an unannounced search and seizure is unthinkable in an America that respects its First Amendment rights. NNA stands by its community newspapers and calls upon top officials in Kansas to immediately return any property seized by law enforcement so the newspaper can proceed with its work."
Rebuild Local News:
Steven Waldman, CEO & founder, Rebuild Local News:
"The attacks on the Marion County Record are a threat to the Freedom of the Press. It is also a reminder of the special challenges faced by rural and small town newsrooms, which often do crucial accountability reporting about institutions and people with tremendous power in the community. These news outlets are especially vulnerable to attack and deserve the full support of the whole journalism community."
Freedom of the Press Foundation:
Statement issued by the Foundation:
Law enforcement officers in Marion, Kansas reportedly raided a local newspaper’s office and its publisher and owners’ home, seizing computers, cell phones and other materials and injuring at least one journalist in the process. The publisher of the Marion County Record said it’s unclear how the paper will be able to publish its next edition.
“Based on the reporting so far, the police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves,” said Seth Stern, Director of Advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation.
The raid was apparently prompted by the Record receiving a tip from a source about a restaurant owner’s drunk driving conviction. “There is nothing illegal about obtaining or verifying a tip from a source,” said Stern.
The paper decided against reporting on the drunk driving conviction (which the restaurant owner reportedly admits) but, according to the Record, the entire police department along with sheriff’s deputies conducted the raid, pursuant to a warrant, unsupported by the required affidavit, vaguely alluding to “identity theft.” The warrant, signed by Judge Laura Viar, provided for seizure of a virtually limitless range of records and devices, and made no effort to protect confidential source communications.
Personal electronics used by the paper’s 98-year-old co-owner Joan Meyer, including a smart speaker she uses to ask for assistance, were among the items the Record says were seized. Officers also reportedly photographed personal financial statements of Meyer’s son and Record co-owner and publisher, Eric Meyer, and made the paper’s staff stand outside for hours during a heat advisory, unable to work.
The Record said it will sue, and it absolutely should. “This looks like the latest example of American law enforcement officers treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes. The anti-press rhetoric that’s become so pervasive in this country has become more than just talk and is creating a dangerous environment for journalists trying to do their jobs” said Stern.
Earlier this year, McCurtain County, Oklahoma officials were caught on tape fantasizing about murdering local journalists. And authorities in Asheville, North Carolina put two journalists on trial for reporting on police evicting a homeless encampment and banned them from city parks.
News Leaders Association:
The News Leaders Association stands with the Marion County Record after the recent outrageous police raid of the Kansas newsroom and of the home of one of its owners. Police seized computers, servers, and cellphones of journalists, and searched through personal documents at the co-owner's home.
This assault on American democracy and the First Amendment cannot be deemed business as usual. Collecting information — aka reporting — is not a crime. If government officials believe a crime may have been committed in the collection of information, the usual course is for the government to serve a subpoena to an alleged offender, which journalists and news organizations can then challenge in court before any action is taken. That's not what happened here.
The Aug. 11 raid amounted to government intimidation and with a dark and sorrowful ending the next day when Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of the family-run Record, died.
There remain many questions about this case and the motivations for this illegal assault on the Marion County Record and established press freedoms. Let there be no question that the Record, along with news media throughout the nation, will not rest until the facts are gathered and the truth is exposed — without fear or favor.
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