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Opinion: The big story behind the police raid on a small-town paper

Opinion by Celia Wexler

(CNN) — What happened to a weekly newspaper in Marion, Kansas, on Friday can be viewed as one unpleasant incident in a small town: the police raiding a local newspaper and the home of its owners and confiscating the digital equivalent of the paper’s printing presses by seizing computers, cell phones and reporting materials containing the names of confidential sources.

But the proper perspective is a much broader one. This is about a police force essentially shrugging off the law and the Constitution. It’s about an intrusion into newsgathering that almost never happens because it so profoundly violates one of our deepest American values – the primacy of the public’s right to know.

The event stirred journalists to their core. But it also alarmed the White House. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told CNN that the Kansas raid raises “a lot of concerns and a lot of questions” for the Biden administration.

I’m the vice president of the Washington, DC, chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. It happens that our national board is giving up to $20,000 to the newspaper in question, the Marion County Record, to help with its legal fees. But my views don’t represent my organization. Rather, they are deeply personal. I’m writing as a citizen who became a journalist to ensure the public’s access to information out of a conviction that good reporting is the best way to ensure a functioning democracy.

The news story at the center of this raid was so responsible and honest, and the reaction of local law enforcement was so over the top, it would be funny if it weren’t true.

The day before the raid, Eric Meyer, co-owner and editor of the Record, wrote an article laying out the state of affairs. His paper had received a private message on Facebook from an anonymous source sharing a government record indicating that a local restaurateur had had her driver’s license suspended because of a DUI. According to Meyer’s reporting, under state law, this could have jeopardized her ability to get a liquor license.

The Record checked the information on a public website and confirmed its accuracy. But Meyer said the paper declined to publish it, worried that the source may have had an agenda. Instead, the paper reported the incident to law enforcement out of fear the paper was being set up.

Then, Meyer reported, police apparently told the restaurateur about the information the newspaper had. Later, at a public meeting of the Marion city council, the restaurateur wrongly accused the paper of illegally obtaining and spreading private information about her, in the process making public by herself her DUI. The paper covered the meeting and spoke to the restaurateur following the event while refuting her accusations against it.

Does this sound like the making of a crime? Or is this anything but solid news reporting, something you’d expect from Meyer, a longtime journalist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who then went on to teach journalism at the University of Illinois? According to the publicly available information, there is no sign the newspaper did anything wrong.

Yet four days after the council meeting, the police raided the newspaper’s offices. Marion police chief Gideon Cody reportedly pushed for the warrant for the raid in order to investigate whether the paper illegally obtained the DUI information, thus potentially committing identity theft.

Cody also had a personal connection to the Record. The paper had investigated the police chief himself over “serious” allegations of misconduct in his previous job with the Kansas City Police Department, Meyer told the Kansas City Star.

Cody retorted that the paper had never published that investigation, which proved the charges had been groundless. “I have already been vetted,” he told the Star. Now the raid, according to Meyer, has given Cody access to the sources behind the story.

That raid was groundless, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In a letter to Cody it wrote, “Based on public reporting, the search warrant that has been published online, and your public statements to the press, there appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search.”

The letter also warned that the raid “may have violated federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to conduct newsroom searches,” which “are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech.”

While the Kansas Bureau of Investigation has not closed its probe of the publication, the paper is now getting back all its seized equipment and records. Even more important, the Marion County Attorney said Wednesday the search warrant was being withdrawn, concluding that the search shouldn’t have been permitted to begin with, saying it was based on “insufficient evidence” that any crime had been committed.

This plot could have the makings of a Frank Capra film – the noble  newspaper editor standing up for truth and the rule of law and (hopefully) ultimately prevailing – except for its tragic, un-Capra-like elements. Joan Meyer, 98, who owned the paper with her son, had trouble eating and sleeping after her home was raided, asking, “Where are all the good people to put a stop to this?” Her anger and upset were, her son believes, a factor in her death the following day.

And contrary to Capra’s formula, there hasn’t been an overwhelming outpouring of public community support for the paper from churches, civic leaders, anyone. Meyer said that some people in the community were offering their support, but only privately. They tell him they’re afraid, he said. What if the police go after them?

Indeed, just because this raid had received lots of publicity and even drew the attention of the White House, it doesn’t mean that the Marion Record or anyone else who cares about democracy should breathe a sigh of relief.

We have seen so many laws broken and rights trampled over the last few years. Each time these boundaries are crossed, democracy is a little weaker, and people a little less empowered.

This time it was law enforcement seizing a newspaper’s property. Next time, a governor may decide to arrest a blogger for saying unkind things about him. In Florida, a bill pending in the legislature would require bloggers who write about state elected officials to register with the state and file reports about how much they earn from their work or face fines.

Librarians are quitting their jobs, fearful of intimidation by the book banners. Election workers are leaving in droves because they can’t stand the threats from people who believe, mistakenly, that they are rigging the vote. Teachers are growing weary of the harassment by parents who want to dictate what public schools may teach.

Marion may be a small town. But there’s nothing small about what happened there. Just ask Maria Ressa, the Nobel laureate Filipino journalist who was hounded by her government for years and became a symbol of press freedom. When news of the Marion police raid began to trickle out on Friday, Ressa responded, “It’s happening to you now … death by a thousand cuts.”

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