With return of Marion County Record equipment, the time has come for answers. And consequences.

August 16, 2023 7:41 pm
Copies of a newspaper on a table

Copies of this week’s Marion County Record rest on a countertop. Staffers pulled an all-nighter to get the newspaper out after their equipment was seized by law enforcement. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Now we know.

The police raid Friday on the Marion County Record newspaper, in which computer and cellphones were seized, didn’t just look like an appalling overreach based on a flimsy pretext.

It was, in fact, an outright abuse of power.

On Wednesday, the county prosecutor withdrew the search warrant and requested the return of all materials to the Record. An investigation would continue, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation said, but without the Record’s technology. In the meantime, the paper celebrated the publication of this week’s issue, created with a cobbled-together computer and a dash of adrenalin.

“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,” county attorney Joel Ensey wrote in a statement.

Thank goodness. We should celebrate authorities backing down. We should celebrate continued service to the people of Marion county. We should celebrate the constitutional right to free speech that allows a diversity of views to echo around the proverbial town square.

But we should also demand answers and consequences for those who would stifle those views.

We need to see the probable cause affidavit supporting the search warrants. It still hasn’t come out, regardless of news media requests. The fact that officials backed down so spectacularly surely suggests that it wasn’t the most solid of documents.

We need to know who wrote that affidavit and why he or she thought it would pass muster.

We need to know how the affidavit was approved and on what grounds. We need to know if anyone, at any point in the process, raised red flags and urged caution.

As for consequences, all of those who raided the Record or approved the raid need to face discipline, up to and including termination from employment.

As for consequences, all of those who raided the Record or approved the raid need to face discipline, up to and including termination from employment.

– Clay Wirestone

That includes Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, who oversaw the raid, and Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, who approved the application for a search. Each has faced newfound scrutiny: Cody over his departure from the Kansas City police force and Viar over her driving record. Kudos to the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle reporters who broke such vital stories. However each situation works out, neither Cody nor Viar seems competent to wield power in our representative democracy. Remember: Their choices nearly shuttered a news outlet.

The local police officers following orders need to face real consequences too. If their chief had ordered the confiscation of several families’ firearms, I’ve no doubt that officers would protest based on Second Amendment grounds.

They didn’t appear to protest on First Amendment grounds Friday. The fact that they instead showed up to raid a newspaper office, a publisher’s home and a city councilwoman’s home calls their professionalism and judgment into question.

Accountability can’t stop there.

KBI leadership would be well advised to do some soul searching. Director Tony Mattivi’s statement Sunday that the news media isn’t “above the law” has a different ring now that we’ve seen local law enforcement were themselves the ones stretching and contorting the law into utter unrecognizability.

Attorney General Kris Kobach might want to speak out against such excesses. As chief law enforcement officer of our state, he must make expectations for law enforcement officers crystal clear. Unconstitutional thuggery has no place here.

Beyond the answers and consequences, Kansans deserve apologies.

Let’s see public officials beg for forgiveness from publisher Eric Meyer and his dedicated staff. Let’s see them offer condolences for Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of the newspaper who died Saturday, upset and frightened. Let’s see them now, finally, grasp the significance of the line they crossed so casually.

In the days after the raid, I urged calm and restraint. I believe that was a good idea as the story unwound. Small towns often generate enormous drama.

Now, however, we can begin to draw conclusions.

Law enforcement may believe that the return of the newspaper’s equipment will end the furor. It shouldn’t. Officials may hope that publicly stepping back will neuter aggressive coverage. It shouldn’t. We need questions answered and consequences levied so a raid like this one can never happen again — in Kansas or the United States.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.