A newspaper raid in Kansas did not stop the presses, but did start scrutiny of local police
As the nation learns more about the raid of the Marion County Record, staffers at the publication keep working while advocates for press freedom offer support and demand answers from the local police.
The weekly Marion County Record newspaper would seem to be an unlikely target for a local police raid. With a circulation of just over 2,000, it is a family-owned and operated publication dating back to 1869. Recent stories include an article about a 10-year-old who performs music for senior center residents and an auction of property seized from people owing taxes.
Then there’s the big story. The Marion Police Department raided the newspaper, and the homes of its owner and publisher, on Friday. They seized computers and cellphones. What’s more, publisher Eric Meyer said, the raids stressed his 98-year-old mother enough to cause her death over the weekend.
According to published reports, the raids stemmed from a dispute between the newspaper and a local restaurant owner.
Press freedom experts and advocates say this kind of action is extremely rare in the United States, largely because of constitutional protections afforded to the profession in the First Amendment.
Claire Regan, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), said the raid in Marion is among the most egregious violations of press freedom she’s seen in her decades as a journalist.
“This definitely ranks up there, if not number one, among the top ten violations of free press and an assault on democracy,” Regan said. “That's the frightening part of it all.”
Israel Balderas, an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University, said what happened at the Marion County Record is a sign of the times.
“I think this is a small event in a larger story,” Balderas said. “I think Marion has become a battleground over the First Amendment and the important role that it plays in making sure that a free press is protected. The press now is attacked more frequently, not just from politicians, but powerful forces. And this is just an example of people at the local level.”
Balderas, who is also a lawyer, said in taking on the Marion County Record, the local police department has landed itself in a federal case because its warrant is based on privacy law. Now, Balderas said, the Marion County Record can seek relief from the courts.
“In the larger context, this newsroom can assert their rights, not just under the Federal Privacy Protection Act, but also their civil rights,” he said.
Scrutiny and support
According to the Local News Initiative (LNI) at Northwestern University, Kansas has lost about nine newspapers between 2005 and 2022. Collectively Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska have lost more than 170 newspapers in that period. All four states have a number of counties with only one newspaper, according to the LNI, and the region is losing newspapers at a faster rate than in many parts of the country.
It’s difficult to know whether the Marion Police Department, serving a small community in “news desert” territory, could foresee the outrage and scrutiny its raid has sparked around the country. Both Regan and Balderas agreed that a lack of public scrutiny via the news media may open the door for further acts against journalists.
“I would say the initial effort was to chill the free press rights of a local newsroom,” Balderas said. “But I go further than that. I believe this was an intimidation tactic.”
“You know we're all very curious about the justification for this egregious decision to raid the newsroom and confiscate all the equipment,” Regan said.
Regan said SPJ leaders have reached out to the Marion Police Department, asking for details about the raid and the legal issues surrounding it. Regan was told information about “criminality” will be announced soon, but the police department declined to offer specifics.
Members of SPJ have also been in contact with Eric Meyer since Friday. Regan said Meyer and Marion County Record staff continue to produce journalism for the paper’s website and are planning to publish their weekly issue on Wednesday as usual.
“Like so many of us journalists, he's persistent. He is persevering,” Regan said. “He is dedicated to getting the information out and just getting over this interruption of information.”
SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund has pledged $20,000 toward the Marion County Record’s coming legal battle.
“We're just going to move ahead to support and help the newspaper recover from this brazen raid,” Regan said. “The solidarity among journalists in our country has been amazing. It's really heartening to see us come together for one cause and to help this newspaper recover.”
SPJ is just one of many journalism organizations publicly opposing the actions against the Marion County Record. Others include the National Newspaper Association, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP).
In fact, the RCFP sent a letter to the Marion Police Department decrying the raid.
“Quite frankly, it should never happen,” Balderas said. “And if it does, it should be under extenuating circumstances. And as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press put forward in a letter sent to the police chief, none of that exists here.”
Editor's note: Holly Edgell is a former member of the Society of Professional Journalists