The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is standing by a raid on a local newspaper after local law enforcement was accused of violating the First Amendment.
The entire five-office police force of Marion, Kansas executed a search warrant at the office of the Marion County Record on Aug. 11. The warrant was granted as part of an investigation into allegations of identity theft and unlawful computers in connection with the paper’s investigation into a woman who had applied for a liquor license. A journalist for the Record reportedly found information that the woman lost her driver’s license in 2008 following a DUI.
The population of Marion is just under 2,000 people.
The state agency said the freedom of the press is “a vanguard of American democracy” but that members of the media are not “above the law.”
“The KBI is entrusted to investigate credible allegations of illegal activity without fear or favor,” said the agency in a statement, per The Kansas City Star. “In order to investigate and gather facts, the KBI commonly executes search warrants on police departments, sheriff’s offices, and at city, county and state offices. … No one is above the law, whether a public official or a representative of the media.”
Officers confiscated computers, cellphones, reporting materials, and other materials “essential to the weekly paper’s operations,” according to NPR. The Marion County Record’s co-owner Eric Meyer told the outlet staff was not permitted into the office during the search.
Meyer also said the raid contributed to the death of his mother, Joan Meyer, who co-owned the Record. She died the day after the raid at the age of 98.
The Record said the elder Meyer was “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after illegal police raids on her home” and the paper’s office.
“She tearfully watched during the raid as the police not only carted away her computer and a router used by an Alexa smart speaker but also dug through her son Eric’s personal bank and investment statements to photograph them,” according to a report from the Record.
A group of 30 news organizations co-signed a letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Aug. 13, telling the Marion Police Department there “appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search.”
“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,” the coalition wrote in the letter addressed to Chief of Police Gideon Cody. “In short, the search warrant directed at the Marion County Record was significantly overbroad, improperly intrusive, and possibly in violation of federal law. … 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.”
Kari Newall, the local business owner at the center of the case, told The New York Times the Record had violated her privacy and has accused the paper of illegally obtaining a letter to her from the Kansas Department of Revenue. The letter, which Meyer said journalist Phyllis Zorn received in a private Facebook message, included instructions on how Newall could get her driver’s license restored. Newall also alleged the Record gave the letter to a city councilwoman, which Meyer has denied.
“There’s a huge difference between vindictive and vindication,” Newell told the outlet during an interview. “I firmly believe that this was a vindictive move, full of malice. And I hope in the end, I receive vindication.”