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Marion County Record Raid Chills Freedom of the Press


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Marion County Record Raid Chills Freedom of the Press

Commentary by Becky Tallent | FāVS News

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Staff members of the Marion County (Kansas) Record were doing what any journalists do — checking out a story using public records. When they decided there was no story, they turned the documents over to the local police.

That is when things went strangely wrong.

Local restaurateur Kari Newell accused the newspaper of attempting identity theft by accessing the records. The newspaper’s offices were raided on Aug. 11 using a search warrant many First Amendment scholars say is illegal.

Further Complications

Complicating the issue is the raid included the home of the newspaper’s co-owner, 98-year-old Joan Meyer, who died after her home was searched, her computer and router seized. A reporter was injured when a cell phone was forcibly removed from her.

Co-owner and publisher Eric Meyer said the 4,000-circulation paper never attempted to steal anyone’s identity, and he never expected to be in the center of a fight for press freedom.

What the paper did, he told the Kansas Reflector, was investigate a story provided to the paper by a confidential source who leaked sensitive documents to the reporter; but after checking state records, the staff felt the story was without merit. The following actions, he said, may have had more to do with tensions between the newspaper and the restaurateur after Newell told a reporter to leave a public meet and greet with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kan).

Newsgathering is Protected

Under federal law, newsgathering is protected under the First Amendment and the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, which broadly prohibits law enforcement from searching for or seizing materials from journalists. An exception is if the journalist involved is suspected of breaking the law.

The Marion police chief told NPR it was the suspicion of identity theft which justified the request to a county judge and the raid. But legal scholars argue this was improper since the reporters were newsgathering and there is no affidavit on record to support the search warrant.

Eric Meyer said the newspaper staff used public records, specifically the Kansas Department of Revenue’s Division of Vehicles website, to investigate if Newell had a drunk driving charge, as alleged by the confidential source. If true, Newell could lose her liquor license.

Kansas, like many states, has an Open Records Act that allows anyone to look up specific information from the state. When given a tip about a prominent person, government websites are usually the first stop for a local reporter to verify the data.

Why This is Concerning

The case of the Marion County Record is troubling because it will have a chilling effect on newsgathering, both from the perspective of reporters researching information and people talking to reporters. In an age when there is so much argument about news media and the truthfulness of news reports from some quarters, such a dampening of information is dangerous to the public.

The search warrant was overly broad, including all computers, cell phones and other equipment from the offices and homes of the owners, rendering the newspaper unable to publish.

Additionally, the action by the judge and the police may have been illegal if the First Amendment scholars are to be believed. Some legal scholars are arguing this goes beyond the protections of the First Amendment and the Privacy Act, it also includes the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unwarranted search and seizure.

Freedom of the Press Matters

Freedom of the press, like freedom of speech and religion, is sacred in America. Shutting down a newspaper because someone does not like the fact a reporter — or anyone — can search state records for information puts democracy in a very dangerous place.

Recently, 35 news associations — led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — sent a letter to the Marion police chief condemning the raid.

“Based on public reporting, the search warrant that has been published online, and your public statements to the press, there appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search,” the letter reads, “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.”

Unfortunately, the actions of the Marion legal community are an affront to basic human decency as well as the basic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

Becky Tallent
Becky Tallent
An award-winning journalist and public relation professional, Rebecca "Becky" Tallent was a journalism faculty member at the University of Idaho for 13 years before her retirement in 2019. Tallent earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma and her Educational Doctorate in Mass Communications from Oklahoma State University. She is of Cherokee descent and is a member of both the Indigenous Journalists Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. She and her husband, Roger Saunders, live in Moscow, Idaho, with their two cats.




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6 months ago

Great article! Freedom of the press has been jeopardized by this raid. Every journalist has the right to access public information and to verify all the facts. In my opinion, this is an insult to democracy and the first amendment.

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