September 15 is International Democracy Day, but in the month leading up to the holiday, democracy itself seemed under attack — acutely in the small town of Marion, Kansas.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Marion has a population of 1,922 residents, and those residents found themselves amidst a flashpoint for a First Amendment fight.
On Friday, Aug. 11, the full arm of the law came down on the local newspaper, the Marion County Record, and its family owners. While executing a search warrant signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, local police officers and sheriff's deputies entered the newspaper’s offices and the homes of its owners, the Meyer family, as well as the home of city councilwoman Ruth Herbel. They confiscated computers, mobile phones, servers and documents — in effect, shutting down the news operation.
Publisher Eric Meyer co-owned the Record with his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer. Her late husband, William, started working for the paper in 1948, and she joined the staff in the 1960s. Over the course of 60 years, she worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and associate publisher, according to her New York Times obituary, beautifully written by Clay Risen.
Her son, Eric, told numerous news outlets how his mother had been so distressed by seeing her home and place of business pilfered by law enforcement that she died the very next day.
The search warrant cited documents related to Kari Newell, a local restauranteur who had a liquor license application before the town's governing board. The Record received a document from an anonymous source indicating that Newell herself had a prior DUI conviction. Though the Record opted not to publish the information, Newell alleged they’d come by it illegally.
In the week following the seizure of the paper’s assets, Eric Meyer had the monumental tasks of rebuilding their operations, mounting a legal case and planning a defense for another, fielding calls from all over the world, and of course, publishing the paper — all while mourning his mother.
He had the support, ears and eyes of news outlets worldwide.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC News, AP, and many others picked up the story and sounded alarms about the seemingly egregious First Amendment violation.
News publishing advocates also expressed support and solidarity with the local news publisher.
The News Leaders Association partly said in a statement, “This assault on American democracy and the First Amendment cannot be deemed business as usual. Collecting information — aka reporting — is not a crime.”
A statement came from The Committee to Protect Journalists’ President Jodie Ginsberg, which in part read, “Local news providers are essential in holding power to account — and they must be able to report freely, without fear of authorities' overreach. This kind of action by police — which we sadly see with growing frequency worldwide — has a chilling effect on journalism and on democracy more broadly. The actions of the police and the judiciary in this case must be thoroughly and swiftly investigated.”
Tim Regan-Porter, CEO, Colorado Press Association and at the Colorado Press Network, told E&P, “It’s shocking. We all need to speak out. … The recent raid on The Marion County Record in Kansas was a shockingly flagrant disregard of the Constitution and, unfortunately, underscores a deeply concerning trend of governmental overreach and attempts to intimidate the press in the U.S.
“Such interference in the press’ ability to hold government accountable threatens democracy itself and should concern not only members of the press but all citizens,” Regan-Porter continued. “As champions of free speech and democracy, it’s imperative for the industry to unite against such unconstitutional strong-arm tactics and safeguard the essential role of the press in society.”
“The proper way to do this under the Privacy Protection Act of 1982 would have been to issue a subpoena, with an opportunity for the paper to be heard in court,” Mickey Osterreicher explained to E&P. Osterreicher is general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and a law enforcement agent himself.
The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi and Sofia Andrade reported on Aug. 15 that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) was going to investigate the case, but the scope was unknown: “It’s not clear whether the state investigation is focused on the local officers who conducted the search at the Marion County Record or on the reporters and editors for the small weekly paper.”
By the very next day, local KSHB 41 I-Team Reporter Jessica McMaster broke the news that the search warrant had been withdrawn and that all of the paper’s belongings had been returned to the Record’s attorney. Meyer’s lawyer enlisted a digital forensics expert to check if data had been taken or manipulated from the seized equipment. At deadline, they were reportedly discussing a civil suit.
Osterreicher said that in similar cases to this, the rhetoric coming from public officials often begins confident and righteous — full support for the actions of the officers — only to have the bluster diminish over time until they’re forced to admit, “Oops, sorry.”
Besides the egregious government overreach in this case, Osterreicher said the other unfortunate part of the story is that the taxpayers will pay for the miscarriage of justice.
Gretchen A. Peck is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher. She’s reported for E&P since 2010 and welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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