Local police searched a small-town newspaper’s office and staff members’ residences on Friday, taking documents related to possible identity theft crimes.
The incident raised First Amendment concerns on a national level.
According to CNN, a search warrant signed by Marion County Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar on Friday morning names Marion County Record, a family-owned weekly newspaper published in the midwestern state about 60 miles north of Wichita, and alleges violations of identity theft and “unlawful acts concerning computers.”
“Our first priority is to be able to publish next week,” Meyer said. “But we also want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today.”
Reporter Deb Gruver said in a Facebook post that she had filed a report with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation accusing Marion, Kansas Police Chief Gideon Cody of reinjuring a finger that had previously been fractured after he reportedly “forcibly yanked” her cell phone from her hand.
“I thought I lived in the United States,” Gruver added.
Authorities also investigated the house of the company’s 98-year-old co-owner Joan Meyer, who passed away less than 24 hours later after collapsing from hours of “shock and grief” that prevented her from eating and led her to lose sleep, according to the newspaper.
According to the search warrant cited by The Epoch Times, the judge gave police permission to take records pertaining to Kari Newell, a local business owner who owns a coffee shop, who was accused of identity theft. According to a tip sent to the newspaper, Newell allegedly operates a vehicle without a current driver’s license as a result of a traffic infraction from 2008.
Meyer informed the local media that despite a reporter having confirmed the facts, he had decided not to publish the story. Instead, he called the police because he believed he had been set up by an unidentified source.
When police got in touch with Newell, she allegedly claimed at a city council meeting that the Record had obtained and illegally shared personal data that was only accessible to law enforcement, private investigators, and insurance companies.
Less than 24 hours prior to the police executing the search warrant, Meyer then wrote an article outlining the timing of events.
“Not only did they have information that was illegal for them to obtain in the manner in which they did, but they sent it out as well,” Newell told CNN, adding the paper published the story “strictly out of malice and retribution for me asking him to exit my establishment.”
The publisher claimed that earlier this month, he and reporter Phyllis Zorn visited Newell’s coffee shop for a public event with US Representative Jake LaTurner (R-KS), but were asked to leave by Newell. As a result, the local police chief advised the two to leave.
Meyer and Zorn were reportedly asked to leave by Newell, who said she was worried their constituents might be misquoted by the Record because it “has a long-standing reputation for twisting and contorting comments within our community.”
Newell told The New York Times that instead of using its First Amendment rights, the Record had violated her privacy.
“There’s a huge difference between vindictive and vindication,” Newell said. “I firmly believe that this was a vindictive move, full of malice. And I hope, in the end, I receive vindication.”
However, Meyer apparently intends to file a lawsuit against the city of Marion and the participants in the raid, citing constitutional issues that prevent officials from inspecting journalists’ offices or seizing their records.
Although a subpoena is normally required for authorities to collect materials, Marion County Police Chief Cody told CNN that there are exceptions in some situations where a subpoena may not be necessary, such as 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,” Cody told The New York Times.
Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, called the move a dangerous attack on press freedom in the US.
“There’s a lot of healthy tension between the government and newspapers, but this?” Bradbury told The New York Times. “This is not right, this is wrong, this cannot be allowed to stand.”
Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation, told CNN the raid appears to have violated federal law and is “the latest example of American law enforcement officers treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes.”
“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,” Stern said.