First Amendment Concerns Raised After Police Seize Materials From Small-Town Kansas Newspaper Office And Staff Homes During Raid
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A small-town newspaper in Kansas is raising First Amendment questions on a national level after local police raided its office and homes of staffers on Friday, seizing material linked to alleged identity theft violations.

Marion County Record, a family-owned weekly newspaper published in the midwestern state about 60 miles north of Wichita, was named in a search warrant signed by Marion County Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar on Friday morning, which alleges violations of identity theft and “unlawful acts concerning computers.” CNN reported.

Eric Meyer, co-owner and publisher of the paper founded more than 150 years ago in the small city of Marion, reportedly said four Marion police officers and three sheriff’s deputies seized personal cell phones, computers, and other materials at his home and Marion County Record office, including some unrelated equipment needed to publish.

“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 wrote in a post on Facebook she had filed a report with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that accused Marion, Kansas Police Chief Gideon Cody of re-injuring a previously dislocated finger after he allegedly “forcibly yanked” her cell phone from her hand.

“I thought I lived in the United States,” Gruver added.

Authorities also searched the home of its 98-year-old co-owner Joan Meyer, who died less than 24 hours later — after she collapsed from hours of “shock and grief” that caused her to lose sleep and not eat, the newspaper reported.

According to the search warrant reported by The Epoch Times, the judge authorized police to seize material related to identity theft allegations of Kari Newell, a local coffee shop business owner. The newspaper reportedly received a tip that Newell allegedly drives without a valid driver’s license after a traffic offense in 2008.

Although a reporter verified the information, Meyer told local media he decided not to publish the story. Instead, he notified the police based on suspicions of being set up by an unknown source. When authorities contacted Newell, she allegedly accused the Record at a city council meeting of illegally obtaining and disseminating personal information that only law enforcement, private investigators, and insurance agencies could access.

Meyer then published an article sequencing the timeline of events on Thursday, less than 24 hours before police executed the search warrant.

“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.”

Earlier this month, the publisher said he and reporter Phyllis Zorn went to Newell’s coffee shop for a public meeting event with US Representative Jake LaTurner (R-KS) but were told to leave by the local police chief at the request of Newell.

Newell reportedly said she asked Meyer and Zorn to leave out of concerns the constituents would face the risk of being misquoted by the Record, which she said: “has a long-standing reputation for twisting and contorting comments within our community.”

Newell described the situation to The New York Times as the Record violating her privacy rights instead of exercising the First Amendment.

“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.”

But Meyer reportedly plans on suing the city of Marion and the individuals involved in the raid while raising constitutional concerns that federal law protects authorities from searching and seizing materials from journalists.

Although authorities typically need to obtain a subpoena to seize materials, Marion County police chief Cody told CNN that there are exceptions in limited circumstances to bypass a subpoena 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.

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