Kansas police raid small-town local newspaper, setting off a press freedoms clash

Police in Marion, Kansas, raided the weekly local newspaper, The Marion County Record, on April 11, seizing computers, files, and personal cellphones in connection with a dispute with a local restaurateur. The Marion police also raided the homes of City Council member Ruth Herbel and the Record's co-owners, editor and publisher Eric Meyer and his 98-year-old mother, Joan. Joan Meyer died Saturday, and her son said the police raid the previous day was partially responsible for her death.

The raids set off a national uproar over press freedoms and roiled Marion, a town of 1,900 about 60 miles north of Wichita. "This is the type of stuff that, you know, that Vladimir Putin does," Meyer told The Associated Press on Sunday. "This is Gestapo tactics from World War II."

Meyer was a journalism professor and editor at the Milwaukee Journal before returning to his family's newspaper in 2019.

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Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody said the raids were tied to suspicions that a reporter at the Record had illegally accessed state files of restaurant owner Kari Newell and might use that information to publish an article, in this case on Newell continuing to drive after her license was suspended over a 2008 DUI conviction. Cody argued, and state Magistrate Judge Laura Viar evidently agreed, that because the newspaper was allegedly aiding in a crime, the robust press protections from the First Amendment and Privacy Protection Act did not apply.

"I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated," Cody said. First Amendment and press freedom experts slammed the raids, saying Cody's understanding of the law was flawed and the Record has good grounds to sue.

Local politics are at play, too. Newell claimed the Record was investigating her DUI conviction and license-less driving in retaliation for her booting Meyer and a reporter from an Aug. 2 meet-and-greet her restaurant hosted for Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kansas). She alleged that the Record had shared her protected personal information with Herbel before an Aug. 7 City Council meeting at which she was seeking a liquor license.

Meyer said the Record and Herbel had been sent the information separately, his reporter had legally verified the tip, and they had decided not to publish an article on it because they suspected their source had obtained it illegally. He also said the Record was actively investigating Cody, hired as police chief in April, over allegations from his long career with the Kansas City Police Department, but had not pinned down enough details to publish anything. Meyer said Cody did not know the Record's sources for the serious allegations against him before the raid — but he does now.

"I want to make sure that this gets enough publicity that people won't try to do it anywhere else," Meyer told The Wall Street Journal. "But I regret the fact that that publicity has to make it look like this town that I'm trying to help is a corrupt cesspool."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.