October 1, 2023

Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of a small Kansas newspaper, collapsed and died at her home on Saturday, a day after police raided her home and the Marion County Record‘s office, the newspaper said. Meyer had been “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief,” the Record said, calling the raids illegal.

Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody on Saturday defended the raid and said that once all the information is available, “the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated.” Police have not shared an update since Meyer’s death was announced.

Police took Meyer’s computer and a router used by an Alexa smart speaker during the raid at her home, according to the paper. Officers at the Record’s office seized personal cellphones, computers, the newspaper’s file server and other equipment. Cody also allegedly forcibly grabbed reporter Deb Gruver’s cellphone, injuring a finger that had previously been dislocated.

“Our first priority is to be able to publish next week,” publisher Eric Meyer said. “But we also want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today. We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law.”

The federal Privacy Protection Act protects journalists and newsrooms from most searches by law enforcement, requiring police usually to issue subpoenas rather than search warrants. 

“It is true that in most cases, it requires police to use subpoenas, rather than search warrants, to search the premises of journalists unless they themselves are suspects in the offense that is the subject of the search,” Cody said. 

Friday’s raid was conducted on the basis of a search warrant. The search warrant, posted online by the Kansas Reflector, indicates police were investigating identity theft and unlawful acts concerning computers. It also indicated police were looking for documents and records pertaining to local restauranteur Kari Newell. 

According to the Record, Newell had accused the newspaper of illegally obtaining drunk driving information about Newell and supplying it to Marion Councilwoman Ruth Herbel

“The Record did not seek out the information,” the newspaper wrote. “Rather, it was provided by a source who sent it to the newspaper via social media and also sent it to Herbel.”

The Record verified the information about Newell through public records but did not plan to publish it, believing that the information had “been intentionally leaked to the newspaper as part of legal sparring between Newell and her estranged husband,” the paper wrote. 

“The victim asks that we do all the law allows to ensure justice is served,” Cody said. “The Marion Kansas Police Department will [do] nothing less.”

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation assisted in the investigation “into allegations of illegal access and dissemination of confidential criminal justice information,” the bureau said in a statement. 

“Director Mattivi believes very strongly that freedom of the press is a vanguard of American democracy… But another principle of our free society is equal application of the law,” the bureau said, adding, “No one is above the law, whether a public official or a representative of the media.”

Police have fallen under scrutiny due to the search, with free speech advocates expressing concern about its implications. 

The raid appears to have violated federal law and the First Amendment, according to Seth Stern, advocacy director of Freedom of the Press Foundation

“This looks like the latest example of American law enforcement officers treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes,” Stern said Friday. “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.”

PEN America on Saturday said law enforcement should be held accountable for violating the Record’s rights. 

“Journalists rely on confidential sources to report on matters of vital public concern,” Shannon Jankowski, PEN America’s journalism and disinformation program director, said in a statement. “Law enforcement’s sweeping raid on The Marion County Record and confiscation of its equipment almost certainly violates federal law and puts the paper’s very ability to publish the news in jeopardy.”