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The Sunflower

Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

OPINION: When cowardly Kansas cops threaten the press, we fight back

‘The Marion County Record raid should serve as a haunting reminder for journalists and citizens that if it can happen there, it can happen here, too.’
Illustration
Julia Thomas
Illustration

If you haven’t seen the national headlines posted by news outlets like The New York Times, CNN and NPR, you may not be aware of the most egregious attack on a Kansas newspaper office and the freedom of the press in recent history. 

Marion County Record editors and employees were preparing the next issue of their weekly paper on the morning of Aug. 11. Little did they know that their newsroom was about to change forever. The seven-person staff of the small, family-owned newspaper was shocked when the entire five-person Marion County police force stormed the newspaper office, as well as the home of the paper’s co-owner and publisher, Eric Meyer, and seized newsgathering electronics, cellphones, file servers, work products and documentary materials.

In an unprecedented attack on democracy, Marion County police officers stripped the Marion County Record of essential reporting materials in a desperate attempt by a local restaurant owner Kari Newell and Police Chief Gideon Cody to bury sensitive information out of fear of being shared with the public.

The debacle began on Aug. 1, when Kari’s Kitchen owner Kari Newell hosted U.S. Congressman Jake LaTurner, along with several other representatives, at her coffee shop. 

Newell enlisted the help of Cody and his officers in keeping away Marion County Record reporters and publishers from the gathering, which was legally considered an open meeting under Kansas law.

Cody, who joined the police staff earlier this year, came to Marion from the Kansas City Police Department, where he was facing demotion and was under investigation for sexual misconduct, according to information obtained by KCUR.

For journalists, being intentionally excluded from an event, especially an open meeting, is typically a good indicator that there is information is being shared that they don’t want to public to know about. LaTurner’s staff, who was apologetic to the Record, arranged a meeting later between LaTurner and the Record outside of the cafe. 

When Marion County Record reporters wrote a story about how they had been removed from the public forum, Newell took to her personal Facebook, making several hostile comments toward the integrity of the newspaper and its coverage. 

Later, a confidential source contacted the Record, providing evidence that Newell, who was attempting to obtain a liquor license for her business, had been convicted of drunken driving and driving without a license. In Kansas, business owners with felony DUI convictions cannot obtain liquor licenses.

While Marion Record reporters were able to verify the information, they decided to air on the side of caution and not publish it, as they suspected their source obtained the original information from Newell’s soon-to-be-divorced husband. Meyer alerted police to the situation, fearing that their source or Newell’s husband was attempting to set them up.

Upon notification by Marion police, Newell complained at a city council meeting that the newspaper had illegally obtained the information – a statement proven to be false. 

The next thing the reporters knew, their news office was under attack by Marion County police. Officers simultaneously raided both the Marion County Record and Meyer’s home, where his elderly mother and newspaper co-owner, Joan Meyer, was residing. 

The officers claimed they were investigating the identity theft of Kari Newell and computer crimes. While officers had a search warrant signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, it violated a federal law that protects journalists from having materials searched and seized. Viar also has two DUI arrests on her record, one in which she crashed into a school building while driving the then-magistrates vehicle.

While Viar and Cody are clearly complicit in this miscarriage of justice, Newell holds a bulk of the responsibility. When she complained to the people of Marion about the newspaper, she was doing so only because she felt her liquor license was in jeopardy. 

In order to divert attention and illegally attempt to eliminate the evidence of her DUI, she was dishonest not only to the Alcoholic Beverage Control board but to the people of Marion County. Her attempt to snatch the information from reporters about her DUI was not only illegal, but was done soley for her own personal financial benefit at the expense of the poor folks in the Marion County Record newsroom.

Joan, who watched in tears as officers seized items from her home, died the following day after being “stressed beyond her limits” and suffering from “heartbreak, sadness and disbelief” from the raid, according to The Marion County Record

The family is now exploring legal action for Joan’s death after the video of Joan confronting police in her home was released, showing her in clear distress. It’s practically undeniable that Joan’s death and the raid are correlated – while Joan was quite old, the impact of an unannounced search and seizure can cause damaging levels of distress and emotional trauma, too much for one elderly woman to process.

The confiscated items were sent to a lab for further analysis. Without their computers, servers and other equipment, Marion Record reporters published  “SEIZED..but not silenced,” last Tuesday in response. Interestingly, the very next day, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and county attorney ordered the return of the equipment, with allegedly not enough sufficient evidence to have seized it in the first place, according to Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey.

The actions taken by Kari Newell and the Marion County Police Department are not only pathetic and misguided but also unconstitutional. Enlisting the help of police to remove evidence of legally obtained information is exactly why journalism exists. 

Journalists serve as watchdogs, investigating public officials and community members for the misuse of power. We exist solely to inform, educate and empower the people, and Newell and Cody were afraid of what that would mean for their reputation. 

Since the raid on Aug. 11, national news organizations and First Amendment activists have come to the aid of the paper and have spoken out against the injustice. The National Freedom of Information Coalition, America’s Newspapers, The National Press Club and the Reporters Committee, along with 34 other news media and press freedom organizations, have published statements condemning the actions taken by the Marion Police Department. 

The Society of Professional Journalists offered the newsroom up to $20,000 in legal fees from the Legal Defense Fund to further protect the Record. The Marion County Record also saw an increase in subscriptions, with more than 1,500 new digital subscribers hoping to support the community paper, showing just how much the community cares for local journalists.

An interview obtained by KMUW best describes Kansan readers’ passion for protecting the press: “When attacks are being made on freedoms of the press or freedoms otherwise, we want to do what we can,” Rusty Leffel said.

The Marion County Record abided by moral and ethical rules and were still violated, simply because Newell and the Marion County PD would rather hide their mistakes than take accountability. Those who serve public positions and are willing to lie or omit information from their constituents, and then go out of their way to disable and oppress those that monitor their power are not serving their people – they’re serving themselves.

Aside from the Marion County Record raid being the latest piece of national news that has thrust Kansas police, and journalists, into the spotlight, it’s a disturbing wake up call for those of us across the country who fulfill watchdog roles or honor democracy. 

With Wichita only 60 miles away, the Marion County Record raid should serve as a haunting reminder for journalists and citizens that if it can happen there, it can happen here, too.

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About the Contributors
Allison Campbell, News Editor
Allison Campbell is the news editor for The Sunflower. A South African native, Campbell is a junior pursuing a journalism and media production degree with a minor in English. Campbell hopes to pursue a career in editing after graduation. They use any pronouns.
Julia Thomas, Illustrator/Designer
Julia Thomas is a first-year designer and illustrator for The Sunflower.

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