In a town of less than 2,000 people, the entire five-officer police force plus two sheriff’s deputies descended on the newspaper office of the Marion County Record on Friday and took everything, including cellphones, computers, hard drives, utility records and more.

Officers also went to the home of Eric Meyer, owner and publisher of the paper, photographed personal bank records and investments, then carted off another computer and an Alexa smart speaker belonging to the co-owner and founder of the paper, Eric’s 98-year-old mother Joan Meyer.

A newspaperwoman for the past 70 years, Joan Meyer told the editorial boards of the Kansas City Star and the Wichita Eagle on Friday night, “These are Hitler tactics and something has to be done.” On Saturday, “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief,” Joan Meyer collapsed and died.

What led to the raid?

According to The Washington Post, it appears that the raid is the result of a rather public dispute between a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell, seeking to obtain a liquor license for her restaurant, and her estranged husband. The newspaper got an unsolicited tip that Newell had a conviction for drunk driving in 2008, which would make her ineligible for a license to sell alcohol.

Newell accused the paper of “invading her privacy” after it obtained copies of her driving record, writes the Associated Press. The Record did not publish a story based on the tip they received. However, the paper did cover a city council meeting where Newell admitted, on the record, that she had been given a DUI citation in 2008. Local Magistrate Judge Laura Viar issued a search warrant citing possible identity theft and illegal use of a computer, authorizing police to seize files relating to Newell.

Marion Chief of Police Gideon Cody defended the raid in an email to The Associated Press. An NBC affiliate said that Cody did not respond to questions about whether police filed a probable cause affidavit for the search warrant, nor did he answer questions about how police believe Newell was victimized.

However, according to reports by The Washington Post and other news outlets, there may be more than just Newell at play here. Cody’s background was being investigated by the Marion County Record. He served in the Kansas City police department for 24 years before joining the Marion police department in April. Eric Meyer said in an interview published Saturday on The Handbasket, a newsletter by journalist Marisa Kabas, that he had received tips that Cody left the Kansas City force to “avoid repercussions for alleged sexual misconduct charges.” The paper did not run a story about Cody, but “details about the investigation — including the identities of those who made the allegations against Cody — were in a computer seized by police.”

The last printed issue of the Marion County Record sits in a display in its office, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Marion, Kan. Editor and Publisher Eric Meyer says the newspaper will publish its regular weekly issue on Aug. 16, 2023, despite a raid by local law enforcement officers and the seizure of computers and cell phones. | John Hanna, Associated Press

News organizations respond

The raid, writes the Kansas City Star and the Wichita Eagle joint editorial boards, is “an intolerable overreach by police” and something “no government agency in America has any right to do.”

Press freedom watchdogs call the raid a “blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution’s protection for a free press” reports The Associated Press.

Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the police raid is unprecedented in Kansas.

“An attack on a newspaper office through an illegal search is not just an infringement on the rights of journalists but an assault on the very foundation of democracy and the public’s right to know,” Bradbury reports to the Kansas Reflector. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”

Sharon Brett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, called it “quite an alarming abuse of authority.” The Associated Press also reports she said that “It seems like one of the most aggressive police raids of a news organization or entity in quite some time.”

Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement to the AP that “the raid appeared to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, ‘and basic human decency.’

“The anti-press rhetoric that’s become so pervasive in this country has become more than just talk and is creating a dangerous environment for journalists trying to do their jobs,” Stern said.

On Sunday, 34 news media and press freedom organizations sent a letter to Cody: “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 search warrant directed at the Marion County Record was significantly overbroad, improperly intrusive, and possibly in violation of federal law,” they write. “Again, and crucially, we urge you to immediately return any seized equipment and records to the newspaper; purge any such records retained by your department; and initiate a full, independent, and transparent review into your department’s actions.”

The Society of Professional Journalists is offering help for legal fees, up to $20,000. “By all accounts, the raid was an egregious attack on freedom of the press, the First Amendment and all the liberties we hold dear as journalists in this great country,” SPJ National President Claire Regan said during an emergency board meeting on Sunday.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy