The police raid of a small-town Kansas newspaper office and the home of its publisher is drawing widespread criticism and questions about police abuses. Eric Meyer, the publisher and co-owner of the Marion County Record, says the raid of his home contributed to the death of his 98-year-old mother over the weekend.
“Stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after illegal police raids on her home and the Marion County Record newspaper office Friday, 98-year-old newspaper co-owner Joan Meyer, otherwise in good health for her age, collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home,” the newspaper reported, adding that she felt unable to sleep or eat on Friday following the raid.
”I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated,” Gideon Cody, the local police chief, insisted.
But the judicial system has thus far been unable or unwilling to make public the affidavit underlying a magistrate judge’s order for a search—an affidavit that should be required for such an order, but which the court told the Record was not on file.
A search of a newsroom protected by the First Amendment would usually require a subpoena rather than a search warrant, but Cody told The Associated Press a subpoena was not necessary "when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.”
A letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that Cody’s claimed foundation for a search rather than a subpoena doesn’t hold up:
In short, search warrants based on the mere receipt, possession, communication, or withholding of work product material are virtually always proscribed with only limited exceptions, and the [Privacy Protection Act of 1980’s] “subpoena first” requirement for documentary material reflects the law’s design to steer law enforcement to the least intrusive investigative means with respect to newsrooms. Both help ensure that affected news organizations can negotiate the scope of a demand or challenge one that is overbroad. Applying these principles to the search your office conducted of the Record, its sweep—and the related threat to the Record’s lawful newsgathering and reporting—clearly runs counter to the intent of the statute, regardless of the asserted predication for the search.
It’s not clear, though, what the alleged wrongdoing is supposed to be. The search was supposedly a response to the Record’s investigation into the drunk driving conviction of a local restaurant owner. After Kari Newell had reporters from the Record removed from an event for the local Republican member of Congress, an anonymous source contacted the Record with information about Newell’s past DUI conviction, which could damage her application for a liquor license for her restaurant. The Record investigated the information it had been provided by the source, and not only decided not to run a story because of concern about how the source obtained that material, but also reported the leak to the sheriff and police. Does that sound like a newspaper actively engaged in some form of criminal character assassination?
What’s even more suspicious about the extreme decision to bypass a subpoena and go straight to a very aggressive search is that Eric Meyer told Marisa Kabas that the newspaper had been investigating something else: the employment background of Cody, who only recently became the local police chief.
So the backstory that we haven't told, because we don't wanna get in trouble, is that we've been investigating the police chief [Gideon Cody]. When he was named Chief just two months ago, we got an outpouring of calls from his former co-workers making a wide array of allegations against him saying that he was about to be demoted at his previous job and that he retired to avoid demotion and punishment over sexual misconduct charges and other things.
We had half a dozen or more different anonymous sources calling in about that. Well, we never ran that because we never could get any of them to go on the record, and we never could get his personnel file. But the allegations—including the identities of who made the allegations—were on one of the computers that got seized. I may be paranoid that this has anything to do with it, but when people come and seize your computer, you tend to be a little paranoid.
Again, the newspaper was carefully doing due diligence, trying not to go to press with thinly sourced allegations. And yes, it’s a big issue that the police seized computer equipment containing information about sources alleging sexual misconduct by the police chief.
If the police want to vindicate themselves and the magistrate judge who signed off on a search warrant without first issuing a subpoena, they should get busy releasing supporting information.