Eric Meyer, editor and publisher of the Marion (Kan.) County Record, speaks Monday during a telephone interview with a British radio station about the raid Friday on his newspaper’s offices and his home by local police. (John Hanna / Associated Press)

Eric Meyer, editor and publisher of the Marion (Kan.) County Record, speaks Monday during a telephone interview with a British radio station about the raid Friday on his newspaper’s offices and his home by local police. (John Hanna / Associated Press)

Editorial: Police raid on newspaper a blatant abuse of power

That it happened in a small Kansas town doesn’t lessen the chilling effect on community journalism.

By The Herald Editorial Board

If fellow journalists were going to pick someone to stand against government overreach and for press freedoms, they couldn’t have selected any better than Eric Meyer, the 69-year-old owner and editor of the Marion County Record in Marion, Kan., said fellow Kansas journalist Tim Stauffer, managing editor of the Iola Register.

“Eric’s a firebrand. … He’s pissed off everybody at some point or another. And that’s to his credit. He doesn’t pull any punches,” Stauffer said. “He knows what he’s doing. … He really believes in the core mission of a newspaper and good old-fashioned reporting, just showing up with a recorder and a camera.”

And this time, Meyer, who took leadership of his family newspaper after a career as a reporter and journalism professor, has apparently pissed off a local restaurant owner and the town’s newly hired police chief, among others. Meyer’s newspaper, a weekly serving a county of less than 12,000 people, two-and-a-half hours southwest of Kansas City, was raided Aug. 11 by the town’s five-member police department and two county deputies in an unannounced search. Police were seeking information that allegedly had been illegally obtained by the Record’s five-member news staff. Along with notes and files, police seized office computers, servers and reporters’ cell phones. As of Monday, the paper was piecing together borrowed equipment to get Wednesday’s edition out.

More than heavy-handed, the raid may have been illegal, violating federal law and the state’s own press shield law, which protects journalists and the information they gather. Had the law been followed, law enforcement could have served the newspaper with a subpoena for the records sought, which would have allowed the newspaper to challenge the subpoena in court and explain what it had and how it was obtained.

What the paper had in its possession, however, appears to have been a legitimate product of news gathering. The allegation is that a source had provided a letter that showed the restaurant owner had a prior conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol, which could have jeopardized a state liquor license for her business. Meyer’s staff, reviewing state public records online — available to anyone — confirmed the drunken-driving conviction. Waiting for further reporting, the paper had yet to publish a story regarding the matter.

Regardless, the police chief obtained a search warrant, signed by a judge who reviewed an affidavit that has yet to be released.

The search and seizure, Stauffer said, appears to stem from a grudge against the newspaper involving the restaurant owner, but also involving the recently hired police chief, the focus of earlier coverage by the Record over allegations of sexual misconduct against the chief during his previous employment with the Kansas City police department.

“I’m surprised that it could go all this way and nobody said, ‘Hold up,’” Stauffer said.

If not government officials — including a judge who looks to have rubbed-stamped a search warrant, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the state’s attorney general — plenty in the wider journalism community are saying, “Hold up.”

“We have people on both sides of the aisle running community newspapers, so this goes beyond political leanings,” said Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. “If you value limited government and transparency this is uniting us all.”

There is a concern for the chilling effect that the raid could have on newspapers, said Susan Lynn, editor and publisher of the Iola Register, and a friend of Meyer, who was on the phone with the Lynn during the raid. She wonders about a recent commentary she wrote that was critical of county officials regarding management of the local landfill and whether her paper might face retaliation.

“The last thing that newspapers need is to see a law enforcement official feeling justified in doing something like this,” said Lynn, who is the five-day-a-week paper’s fourth generation of family ownership. Stauffer, her son, is its fifth.

Raids such as that against the Record and other harassment and actions against journalists and newsrooms are becoming increasingly common; including the 2019 raid of the home of a San Francisco freelance journalist investigating the death of a public defender; and retaliatory actions for unflattering coverage that have stripped newspapers in several states of contracts for publications of legals and public notices, an important source of revenue for community newspapers scraping by on dwindling revenue from advertising and subscriptions.

Last week, The Daily Herald’s editorial board advocated for legislation in Congress that would create two tax credit programs with the potential to provide financial assistance to newspapers and other news outlets in an effort to provide some sustainability to the journalism provided by some 6,300 newspapers — most small- to medium-sized community dailies and weeklies — in the United States. The nation is losing those sources of community journalism — and the reporting that seeks to expose government and business corruption — at a pace of two papers a week, as “news deserts,” areas without even one local newspaper, continue to spread, merge and grow.

The police raid on the Marion County Record shows that threats to community journalism go beyond financial concerns related to losses in subscriptions and advertising; the raid on the Kansas weekly represents an assault on newspapers and the First Amendment, itself. And that concern is as real in Snohomish County as it is 1,800 miles away in Marion County, Kan.

Along with the newspapers and news organizations criticizing the raid, its attempted shutdown of a newspaper and its stifling of the people’s right to know, the voices of two other groups now should be heard raising objections to a stark attack on press and speech freedoms: the people served by the journalism practiced for their benefit and the public officials responsible for upholding the Constitution and its free-speech protections.

This Saturday, many of Kansas’ community publishers and journalists will gather with Meyer for the funeral of his 98-year-old mother. Joan.

Meyer’s mother, who owned the paper with Meyer, died Aug. 11 during the search of the paper’s offices and the home she shared with her son. Joan Meyer, an online article in the Record said, died “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by shock and grief,” during the raid of the paper the family had owned since 1998 and where her husband had worked beginning in 1948. Meyer said he believed that shock contributed to her death, a conclusion supported by the county coroner.

“No matter your stance editorially on this, we’re all very much united,” Lynn said of the newspaper community. “Yeah, this kind of thing can’t happen.”

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