Marion publisher’s lawyer chastises police for treating newspaper as ‘drug cartel,’ ‘street gang’

Journalism group offers $20,000 to defend Kansas paper after police raids, seizures

By: - August 14, 2023 11:34 am
Marion County Record office

The Society of Professional Journalists offered $20,000 to legal defense of the Marion County Record, which was raided by local law enforcement Friday based on allegations the newspaper engaged in identity theft to secure information about a local merchant's drunken driving conviction. The newspaper says the information was legally obtained and the police search was illegal. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — An attorney representing the Marion County Record in wake of a raid of the newspaper’s office urged Marion law enforcement officials to stop short of examining computers and other seized property pending a court hearing on whether the search violated legal standards.

Bernie Rhodes, a lawyer from Kansas City, Missouri, said in a three-page letter to Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody that treatment of the newspaper and its employees as if they were participants in a violent criminal enterprise ran afoul of mandates in the U.S. Constitution designed to protect freedom of the press.

He advised the police chief, who has defended the decision Friday to raid the Marion County Record, the home of the publisher and a member of the Marion City Council, to take advantage of a window of opportunity to mitigate legal damage.

“Your personal decision to treat the local newspaper as a drug cartel or a street gang offends the constitutional protections the founding fathers gave the free press,” Rhodes said in the document. “I can assure you that the Record will take every step to obtain relief for the damages your heavy-handed actions have already caused my client.”

Rhodes said publisher Eric Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, compared actions of Marion law enforcement officers to “Hitler tactics” less than 24 hours before she died Saturday. Eric Meyer, who has indicated the newspaper could file a federal lawsuit, said trauma of the police search of her home may have contributed to her death.

In the letter to the police chief, Rhodes said the journalist shield law in Kansas provided for a court hearing before law enforcement could review seized information. He said federal law enabled access to an individual’s driving license status for unpublished research purposes. In this instance, information about a local business owner was examined by newspaper staff on a website maintained by the Kansas Department of Revenue. The Marion County Record didn’t publish information gleaned from the site.

In an interview Monday, Gov. Laura Kelly said she was eager to learn more details of the raid and assess whether rights were infringed.

“I think there is a lot more to know,” she told State Affairs Kansas. “I’m very anxious because I’m a strong advocate for freedom of press, freedom of speech. We will continue to support the questions that are being asked all over.”


Unlocking web of intrigue

The decision of local law enforcement to execute search warrants  on the Marion County Record’s office, the publisher’s home and the residence of Marion City Council member Ruth Herbel exposed a web of intrigue tied to a local restaurant owner’s 2008 drunken driving conviction and her pending application for a liquor license.

Restaurateur Kari Newell had previously alleged during a Marion City Council meeting that Herbel “negligently and maliciously” engaged in theft of information about Newell’s driving record. Newell also accused the Marion County Record of violating her privacy by examining government records revealing her driving record.

The Marion Police Department said in a statement Saturday the agency was justified in investigating suspected criminal activity and was responding to the restaurant owner’s demand that “justice is served.”

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which is under authority of Attorney General Kris Kobach, assigned an agent to the case prior to the raid at the request of Marion police. KBI Director Tony Mattivi said he supported press freedom but defended use of search warrants to examine allegations of wrongdoing. Mattivi said “no one is above the law,” including representatives of the media.

There are pending requests from news organizations for release by Marion County District Court of the probable cause affidavit relied upon by Magistrate Judge Laura Viar to grant the search warrant.

Max Kautsch, a Lawrence attorney with the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, said the organization condemned the searches and seizure of property from offices of the Marion County Record and the home of its publisher. He said law enforcement authorities trampled First Amendment rights while carrying out their assignments. The local police department apparently didn’t first seek a subpoena for the newspaper’s materials, which would have given both sides the opportunity to argue legal propriety of the request.

Kautsch said the affidavit should be promptly released so the public could better evaluate whether actions of authorities were justified.

“Law enforcement has refused to explain the facts that led to the issuance of the warrant,” Kautsch said. “Given the publicity surrounding this matter, and that details of the incident have been heavily publicized as a result of the reporting by the Record and others, there is no longer any reason to withhold the affidavit supporting the request to issue the search warrant.”

$20,000 for legal effort

Meanwhile, the Society of Professional Journalists’ board unanimously offered $20,000 to the family-owned Marion County Record for legal costs in wake of the seizure of newspaper and personal property based on allegations of identity theft and illegal use of a computer.

The raid undermining operation of the weekly newspaper alarmed First Amendment champions, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 33 other news media and press organizations that sent a protest letter to the police chief.

“By all accounts, the raid was an egregious attack on freedom of the press, the First Amendment and all the liberties we hold dear as journalists in this great country,” said Claire Regan, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “From the moment they learned about the raid, SPJ members have been speaking up and stepping forward to demand justice, hold the responsible accountable and support the Record staff in their recovery.”

The letter sent by the national organization to the police chief by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the search warrant directed at the Marion County Record was “significantly overbroad, improperly intrusive and possibly in violation of federal law.”

That letter recommended return of  confiscated computers, servers, telephones and records to the newspaper, the purging of newspaper records retained by the police department and initiation of a transparent inquiry into the department’s conduct.

“The newsroom is sacrosanct,” said the SPJ’s Regan. “Interrupting its operation is a threat to democracy. SPJ offers its full support to the staff of the Marion County Record following this outrageous attack on freedom of the press.”

The University of Kansas’ journalism school issued a statement noting Joan Meyer’s death and saying it stood by graduates of the university, including Eric Meyer, and “all journalists who work tirelessly, and often at great personal cost, to ensure that the public is well informed.” The journalism school and the William Allen White Foundation’s board said “any threat to journalism is a threat to democracy itself.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.