Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore

On Aug. 11, the Marion County Record, a weekly newspaper in central Kansas, was raided by police after a local restaurant owner accused the newspaper of illegally accessing information about her. The raid of the offices of the newspaper and an accompanying search of the home of the publisher’s 98-year-old mother, has sparked a firestorm of protest, put an international spotlight on Marion, Kansas,  and stirred renewed concern about the sanctity of the First Amendment.

Tragically publisher Eric Meyer’s mother died the day after the raid. A video released by the newspaper following the raid shows how visibly upset the mother was during the raid:  “Get out of my house…I don’t want you in my house!” she says at one point. “Don’t touch any of that stuff! This is my house!” she said at another. Her subsequent death was caused by cardiac arrest.

A letter from 34 journalism organizations and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, written immediately after the raid, expressed grave concern: “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 raid reportedly followed the newspaper’s attemps to verify information  — through a state website available to the public — it had received from a source. Following that, the Record is said to have alerted alert the police department out of concern that, according to the owner and publisher of the paper, the paper was being “set up.” A prosecutor said later that there was insufficient evidence to justify the raids. Some of the seized computers and cellphones have been returned. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the agency that maintains the state website said the initial online search — that the police chief cited to justify the raid — was legal.

Legal experts believe the police raid on the newspaper violated a federal privacy law or a state law shielding journalists from having to identify sources or to turn over unpublished material to law enforcement.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation continues to examine the newspaper’s actions.

The federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980 protects the flow of information to journalists by prohibiting law enforcement, including local agencies, from searching for or seizing journalistic work product or documentary materials, except in narrow, exceptional circumstances. Authorities may only search for or seize work product if the immediate seizure is necessary to prevent the death of, or serious bodily injury to, a human being, or where there is probable cause to believe that the possessor has committed or is committing certain crimes.

 

The Marion County Record has a circulation of about 2,000 copies distributed every Wednesday across a county with a population just under 12,000 people.  It was founded in 1869 and has a reputation for holding local officials accountable. That role as a community watchdog is becoming rarer by the week as community newspapers fall under pressures that come from declining readership, declining ad revenues and rising costs.

Social media — viewed as a competitor to traditional news sources — tries to claim a community connection, but knowing a community and its people is nothing new to local newspapers. The Lakeville Journal knows about those existential pressures. Our readers generously helped keep us going when the going got tough.  We thank you again for continued support of your community weekly.

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