Well, this is alarming. Local police recently raided a small Kansas newspaper, the Marion-County Ledger, in an incident that’s prompting warnings from free speech watchdogs.
On Friday, police raided the newspaper’s office, collecting computers, cellphones, and other data. They also raided the home of the paper’s 98-year-old co-founder, Joan Meyer, who was placed under tremendous stress and then died just a day later. (Her family suspects a connection between the stress and her death, but whether the two are directly related is currently unknown).
The Marion County Police Department said their raid was justified as part of an investigation into whether the paper had illegally obtained a document in its reporting on a local business owner. But to engage in this kind of raid as part of this kind of investigation is extraordinarily unusual, according to the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).
“Federal law generally requires the police to proceed using a subpoena, rather than a search warrant, when it seeks information from a reporter or news organization, precisely to prevent the type of raids that took place in Marion on Friday,” FIRE said in a statement. “That procedure enables the newspaper to challenge the demand in court before having to comply. While the law contains some narrow exceptions that permit searches in some extraordinary circumstances, none apply in this case.”
So, barring some truly exceptional circumstances and evidence being revealed in the future, it’s hard to see how this raid could possibly be justified. And, in absence of such extreme circumstances that could justify an act like this, the police raid on this small town paper is an egregious abuse of power. It has done irreparable damage to the newspaper staff, violated their privacy, and sent a chilling message.
There’s also another potentially corrupt angle here. As the Associated Press reports, “Newspaper publisher and co-owner Eric Meyer said he believes the newspaper’s dogged coverage of local politics and Police Chief Gideon Cody’s record are the main reason for the raids. The Record was in the midst of digging into the newly hired chief’s past as a Kansas City, Missouri, police captain when the raids were carried out, Meyer said, although the newspaper hasn’t yet published a story.”
That’s right: the raid on the paper just happened to occur as their journalists were digging into the newly-hired police chief’s past. I’m sorry, but that’s… probably not a coincidence. It’s at least possible, or potentially even probable, that the raid was an act of retaliation, meant to send a message: don’t mess with us.
If true, of course, this constitutes an egregious attack on the free press. The whole point of journalism is to scrutinize, investigate, and challenge those in power, especially the government, so that voters can make informed choices at the ballot box. That necessarily requires the freedom to look into government officials without practically getting SWATTed.
The twist that makes this story even worse is that it’s unlikely the Marion-County Ledger will be able to hold the officers who seemingly violated their rights civilly accountable. The officers will most likely be protected by “qualified immunity,” a judicially-invented liability shield that in many cases prevents individual government officials from having to pay damages when they violate citizens’ rights.
The disturbing incident ought to prompt a national reckoning. Not just with the egregious attack on free speech that seems to have occurred, but also with the systems and policies that enable these kinds of abuses.