This happened in America.
Last Friday (Aug. 11), seven police officers and sheriff’s deputies raided the offices of a small newspaper in Kansas, as well as the home of the paper’s co-owner and publisher, arguably because a local businessperson and the chief of police were unhappy with the newspaper’s coverage of them. Based on a legally questionable search warrant, the officers took computers, cell phones and other materials from both the office and the co-publisher’s home. They came in unannounced, like a SWAT team taking down drug dealers or murder suspects.
The raid on the Marion County Record, circulation 4,000, “appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves,” said Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in an interview with CNN.
Shame doesn’t begin to cover it.
According to a story on The Poynter Report’s website, in events leading up to the police operation “It appears the newspaper acted responsibly, did nothing illegal or even questionable and yet was still raided by the police. [Co-owner Eric] Meyer told The New York Times that the paper has angered some local officials for its reporting on the employment history of Marion Police Department Chief Gideon Cody.”
According to a Washington Post story, “The Record had been actively investigating Police Chief Gideon Cody at the time of the raid after receiving tips that he had left his previous job in Kansas City, Mo., to avoid repercussions for alleged sexual misconduct charges …” The paper had published nothing about that investigation.
The official story was that the raid was part of a criminal probe of the newspaper over allegations that it illegally obtained and used personal information about a local business owner, although the newspaper’s only reporting related to business owner’s complaint was based solely on her own public statements at a city council meeting.
What happened in Marion was a shocking abuse of power, the kind of thing that happens in totalitarian regimes where media rights are trampled and journalists are threatened or even killed. The raid was a press-hater’s dream. It should be everyone’s nightmare.
Fortunately, it is also uncommon — which intensifies the shock effect. A Washington Post story reported: “Police raids on news organizations are almost unknown in the United States and are illegal under most circumstances under state and federal law. ‘This shouldn’t happen in America,’ said Emily Bradbury, the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, in an interview Sunday.”
But it did. Not to the New York Times or CNN or Wall Street Journal. The target was a community newspaper appropriately doing its job in a small town where those in power or with some grievance felt emboldened to ransack a publication that had upset them — or might at some point in the future upset them. According to the Poynter website, “[Eric] Meyer told CNN, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, not in America. This was an atomic flyswatter.’”
There are other ways to go about harassing newspapers, within the system. According to the Washington Post story, “[Emily] Bradbury said the newspaper’s records could have been obtained via a subpoena, a court-ordered command for specific material that is subject to legal objections, not ‘an unannounced search.’”
The Marion County Record may sue those responsible for the raid, which should only be the beginning of accountability and repercussions. The day after the raid, Joan Meyer — Eric Meyer’s mother and the 98-year-old co-owner of the paper — collapsed and died at her home after it had been taken apart by police officers.
More broadly, the raid is an example of the empowerment that some government officials feel free to exercise thanks to relentless partisan attacks on American institutions including local government, schools, libraries and the press.
According to the Poynter website, “The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 34 news organizations sent a letter addressed to Chief Cody. The letter said, ‘Newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech by the press and the public.’”
If you think this is just a clash of wills between political power and the press, you are missing the point. An assault on journalistic freedom is an assault on fundamental American principles — and on all Americans. When the small town newspapers are gone or gutted, who are residents going to turn to when it’s their homes and businesses being violated?