Marion, Kan. — A small central Kansas police department is facing criticism for raiding a local newspaper’s office and the owner and publisher’s home, seizing computers and cellphones and, in the publisher’s view, stressing his 98-year-old. Mother enough to cause his weekend death.
Several press freedom watchdog groups condemned the Marion Police Department’s actions as a flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution’s protections for a free press. Eric Meyer, editor and publisher of the Marion County Record, worked with his staff Sunday to reconstruct stories, ads and other material for its next edition. Joan, co-owner of the paper.
A search warrant tied to searches by Marion police led by Chief Gideon Cody Friday morning into a dispute between the newspaper and local restaurant owner Kari Newell. He accused the newspaper of invading his privacy and illegally accessing information about him, and suggested the newspaper targeted him after he threw the mayor and a reporter out of a restaurant while performing for a congressman representing the area.
While the mayor looked at Newell’s complaints — which he said were false — that prompted the raids, he believes the newspaper’s aggressive coverage of local politics and issues played a role. He said the newspaper is also looking into Cody’s past work with the Kansas City, Missouri, police.
“You know, Vladimir Putin does it, Third World dictators do it,” the mayor said during an interview in his office. “It’s World War II Gestapo tactics.”
Cody said the raid on Sunday was lawful and tied to the investigation.
The raids took place in a town of about 1,900 people nestled among the prairie hills about 150 miles (241 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City.
The mayor said Cody injured his finger when a Record reporter grabbed his cell phone, according to the report. The newspaper’s surveillance video showed officers reading the reporter his rights as Cody watched, and he was not arrested or detained. As the search continued for more than 90 minutes, newspaper staff left the building.
Meanwhile, the mayor said police simultaneously raided his home and seized computers, a cell phone and the home’s Internet router.
But as the mayor fielded messages from reporters and editors as far away as London and reviewed footage from the newsroom’s surveillance camera, he said Newell was receiving death threats from afar. She said the record was engaging in “tabloid trash reporting” and was trying to silence her.
“I fully believe the intent was to do harm and tarnish my reputation, and if it had been left at that, I don’t think it would have exploded,” Newell said. Telephone interview.
Newell said Republican U.S. Rep. Jake Lauderner kicked the mayor and a Record reporter out of the event at the request of others upset by the “toxic” newspaper. On the town’s main street, a storefront had a hand-made “Support Marian PD” sign.”
The Chief of Police and other officials were recognized at the reception and the Marion Police Department highlighted the event on its Facebook page.
Lauderner’s office did not immediately return phone messages Sunday seeking comment at his Washington and district offices.
Newell said he believes the newspaper broke the law to obtain his personal information by checking the status of his driver’s license following a 2008 drunken-driving conviction and other violations.
The newspaper countered that it had received unsolicited information, which it verified through public online records. It ultimately decided not to run the story because it wasn’t sure whether the source that provided it received it legally. But the newspaper ran a story at the city council meeting in which Newell confirmed he had a DUI conviction and continued to drive after his license was suspended.
A two-page search warrant signed by a local judge lists Newell as the victim of the alleged crimes in the newspaper. When the newspaper asked for a copy of the probable cause affidavit required by law to issue a search warrant, the district court issued a signed statement saying no such affidavit was on file.
In an email to The Associated Press in support of Sunday’s raid, federal law requires a subpoena — not just a search warrant — to search a newsroom, but there is an exception. Believe that the journalist is participating in wrongdoing.
Cody did not provide details on what the charges entail.
Cody, who was hired as Marion’s police chief in late April after 24 years on the Kansas City police force, did not respond to questions about whether police had filed a probable cause affidavit for the search warrant. He also did not respond to questions about how police believe Newell was the victim.
Press freedom and civil liberties groups, the police, the local prosecutor’s office and the judge who signed the search warrant all acknowledged the abuse of their authority.
“This appears to be one of the most aggressive police raids on a news agency or organization in some time,” said Sharon Brett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, who called it “an extremely dangerous abuse of power.”
Seth Stern, director of Advocacy for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement that the test appeared to violate federal law, the First Amendment, “and basic human decency.”
“The anti-press rhetoric that has become so prevalent in this country has become more than just talk and creates a dangerous environment for journalists trying to do their jobs,” Stern said.
The mayor said he was getting help from press freedom groups and other news organizations. But he said he and his staff need more hours in the day to put together their next version.
Both he and Newell are considering lawsuits — Newell against the newspaper and the public officials who raided the mayor.
As for criticism of the raid as a violation of First Amendment rights, Newell said his privacy rights were violated, adding that they are “just as important as anyone else’s.”
Beck reported from Omaha, Nebraska.
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