On August 11, 2023, a small-town newspaper in Kansas, the Marion County Record, was raided by law enforcement. Police came into the paper’s offices and the home of its co-owner and seized the paper’s electronic devices and files. The raid quickly made national and international headlines, sending shock waves throughout the free press community. Why had police raided the premises? Was the raid legal? What does this mean for our free and independent press? These questions and more swirled around this unusual event.
The News/Media Alliance quickly condemned the raid, along with numerous other organizations, in a letter led by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP). In the days and weeks following the raid, we know the answers to many questions, but some remain unanswered, such as: What lasting impact will the raid have on the independence of the free press in this country?
As reported, the raid was conducted in response to a local restaurant owner’s claim that a reporter at the paper had allegedly committed identify theft in accessing her driving record. In fact, we now know the reporter accessed public records on a public website in order to verify a tip she received from a confidential source. Five days after the raid, after much public outcry, the warrant was withdrawn and the paper’s equipment returned. While some may read this and think, “No harm, no foul,” unfortunately this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here are three reasons why this raid is no small-fry matter, and why every American should be alarmed:
1) The Press Rely on Protection of the Law to Keep Government Accountable
The press has long operated as an unofficial watchdog of government, uncovering misconduct and corruption through investigative journalism, and keeping the public informed of government actions. Journalists are only able to do this, however, if they can rely on laws designed to protect them from government overreach or abuse of power. Most states have press shield laws (something still needed on the Federal level), such as the Kansas Shield Law, which should have protected the Marion County Record from a raid, providing for a subpoena instead of a raid. The raid broke several norms, and the broad seizure of equipment caused the paper to almost shut down its operations. A reporter at the paper has filed a lawsuit against the police chief, claiming her First Amendment rights were violated, and alleging the raid was intended to ‘punish the journalists for investigating and reporting news stories.’
2) Police Raids Have a Chilling Effect on Journalists and Sources
If the government can infringe upon the rights of the free press, raid their premises and search through confidential source materials, this can have rippling effects – chilling not only the investigative work of journalists, but also deterring sources from coming forward. In the words of Eric Meyer, owner of the Marion County Record, “it would be the end of people ever being able to send anything anonymously to a newspaper.” Our democracy relies heavily upon the freedom of the press. Without it, America begins to resemble countries like Russia or North Korea, where the government routinely raids news organizations, intimidates reporters, and exposes confidential sources precisely to silence the press and anyone who helps uncover truths.
3) The Human Impact of this Event Cannot Be Understated
Tragically, the paper’s co-owner, 98-year-old Joan Meyer, collapsed and died just one day after her home was searched as part of the raid. The coroner determined that the stress of the search was a contributing factor to her death. Her son and now sole owner Eric Meyer said in an interview, “So the last 24 hours of a 98-year-old woman’s life was devoted to pain and anguish, and a feeling that all her life didn’t matter.” Beyond this personal and unnecessary tragedy, a raid on a news organization breeds mistrust in the press and law enforcement and can splinter communities, especially in small towns such as Marion County.
The impact this raid will have on American journalism going forward is yet to be seen. That will largely depend on how strongly the community at large condemns such raids and what if any accountability arises from it. The News/Media Alliance continues to stand in support of the Marion County Record and all journalists in pursuit of the protection of their First Amendment Rights.
Charlotte McBirney is Senior Counsel and Director, Public Policy for the News/Media Alliance.