Kansas prosecutor backtracks on attack on a local newspaper

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newsroom raid
“The Record should sue not only to deter future searches of its newsroom, but to protect journalists and news outlets around the country from future illegal raids,” said one press freedom advocate. Local law enforcement raided the Marion County Record office in Kansas in an alleged identity theft investigation on August 11, 2023. Photo by the Marion County Record via Freedom of the Press Foundation.

“First step toward accountability:” prosecutor withdraws search warrant against Kansas newspaper

by Jessica Corbett — Common Dreams

The local prosecutor behind last week’s police raid on a Kansas newspaper and its co-owners’ home—which has been widely decried by media outlets and press freedom advocates—agreed on Wednesday to withdraw the related search warrant and return seized items including computers and cellphones to the Marion County Record.

“On Monday, August 14, 2023, I reviewed in detail the warrant applications made Friday, August 11, 2023 to search various locations in Marion County including the office of the Marion County Record,” said Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey in a statement. “The affidavits, which I am asking the court to release, established probable cause to believe that an employee of the newspaper may have committed the crime of K.S.A. 21-5839, Unlawful Acts Concerning Computers.”

“Upon further review however, I have come to the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized,” he continued. “As a result, I have submitted a proposed order asking the court to release the evidence seized. I have asked local law enforcement to return the material seized to the owners of the property.”

Ensey noted that “this matter will remain under review” until the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which is now responsible for the probe, may submit findings to his office for a charging decision. The KBI Wednesday said that “this investigation remains open” and “will proceed independently, and without review or examination of any of the evidence seized on Friday.”

KSHB 41 reported that the Record’s lawyer, Bernie Rhodes, “says all items that were seized as part of the raid have been released back to the attorney representing the newspaper,” and “a forensics expert is on standby to examine the items that were seized.”

Rhodes told The Washington Post that the withdrawal of the warrant was “a promising first step” but “it doesn’t do anything to undo the past and regrettably, it doesn’t bring back Joan Meyer,” who lived with her son, Eric Meyer, the Record’s co-owner and publisher.

According to the targeted newspaper, “Stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after illegal police raids on her home and the Marion County Record newspaper office Friday, 98-year-old newspaper co-owner Joan Meyer, otherwise in good health for her age, collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home.”

Echoing Rhodes, PEN America’s Shannon Jankowski said in a statement Wednesday that “the withdrawal of a search warrant against the Marion County Record and the return of seized devices after a raid by law enforcement is a first step toward accountability in this unconscionable breach of press freedom.”

“While withdrawing the search warrant is the correct step, Marion County tragically cannot undo the death of the newspaper’s 98-year-old co-owner Joan Meyer, who collapsed and died after police rifled through papers and seized materials from her home,” she stressed. “Nor can law enforcement reverse the damage that has resulted to the newspaper staff, its confidential sources, and the chill on press freedom writ large from the raid. PEN America continues to stand in solidarity with the Record and urges that those responsible for the raid be held to account for violating the newspaper’s rights.”

Leaders at the Freedom of the Press Foundation similarly called for accountability on Wednesday, with deputy director of advocacy Caitlin Vogus saying that “the Record and the public deserve to know why the Marion police decided to conduct this raid and whether they gave even a moment’s thought to the First Amendment or other legal restrictions before they decided to search a newsroom.”

“Government officials who think they can raid a newsroom should be on notice that there are consequences for searches that violate the law,” Vogus continued, noting that the newspaper has threatened a lawsuit. “The Record should sue not only to deter future searches of its newsroom, but to protect journalists and news outlets around the country from future illegal raids.”

In this case, Freedom of the Press Foundation director of advocacy Seth Stern argued, “authorities deserve zero credit for coming to their senses only after an intense backlash from the local and national media and an aggressive letter from the Record’s lawyer.”

“These kinds of frivolous abuses of the legal system to attack the press are intended not to win but to intimidate journalists,” he said. “Usually, after accomplishing that goal, authorities are able to drop charges quietly to avoid embarrassing themselves in court. It’s good that this time the process is playing out publicly, thanks to the media attention this case rightfully received.”

Despite several obstacles created by local law enforcement seizing electronics and reporting materials, the Record published on Wednesday—with a front-page headline that declared, “SEIZED… but not silenced.”

“Phyllis Zorn, a staff reporter, said she had heard of the term ‘all-nighter,’ but she didn’t know it to be real before,” the Kansas Reflector reported, noting that newspaper staff finished the pages of Wednesday’s edition just after 5:00 a.m. and Eric Meyer made it home at 7:30 a.m.

The publisher told the Reflector that “if we hadn’t been able to figure out how to get computers together, Phyllis and I and everybody else would be handwriting notes out on Post-It notes and putting them on doors around the town, because we were going to publish one way or another.”

 

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