I knew Kansas officials would overstep after Marion raid. I didn’t expect it to be in Lawrence.

September 20, 2023 3:33 am

A dustup in Douglas County likely won't attract the same attention as the Marion County Record raid. But perhaps it should, writes Clay Wirestone. (Getty Images)

Ding ding ding!

We have a winner for the not-at-all-coveted prize of “first Kansas officials to embarrass our state by attacking the free press after the raid on the Marion County Record.” You knew this award was coming. I knew this award was coming. News outlets try to uncover information powerful people want kept secret. That makes them enemies in all sorts of places.

What I didn’t expect, and what makes me frankly a bit embarrassed, is that these attacks come from lovely Lawrence, also known as the most liberal place in Kansas that’s not currently hosting a convention of Trotskyites.

Yes, Douglas County deputy district attorney Joshua Seiden tried to prevent the release of an affidavit with a dumbfounding attack on the Lawrence Journal-World. (Emphasis on the “dumb.”)

As Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith explained in his story Tuesday afternoon, state law classifies affidavits as public records. That means that the public — you and I and that fellow we glimpsed down the alleyway late at night — have the right to read them. Officials can ask to have affidavits sealed for a list of specific reasons. The Journal-World wanted to see the affidavit for the very good reason that it involved a stabbing close to a city-run camp for homeless people.

But they didn’t need a good reason. The record is public. They could have no reason at all. The law still requires that officials hand over the information.

Seiden didn’t want to. He perfunctorily listed some reasons why the affidavit shouldn’t be public but then decided to simply attack the city’s newspaper. He apparently never heard the expression: “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

“While the Lawrence Journal-World may claim that it requests this information because it is in the public interest, the sad reality is that the Lawrence Journal-World is a fledgling publication devoid of journalist integrity and constantly on the prowl for potential clickbait,” the deputy district attorney wrote.

As a lawyer, one might hope that Seiden knows what “fledgling” means, or that “journalistic” was the appropriate term for the situation.

In any event, we all make typos now and then.

The real problem, as Douglas County District Judge Stacey Donovan pointed out, is that none of this rhetoric has any bearing on the law. Indeed, it raises serious questions about the intent of county officials in their dealing with the public.

– Clay Wirestone

No, the real problem, as Douglas County District Judge Stacey Donovan pointed out, is that none of this rhetoric has any bearing on the law. Indeed, it raises serious questions about the intent of county officials in their dealing with the public.

“The media functions as a watchdog that informs, as well as a forum that shares and promotes ideas and opinions for and among ordinary citizens,” Donovan wrote in her ruling on the request. “The state’s attempt to persuade this court to weigh the ‘journalistic integrity’ of the requester in deciding whether to seal the affidavit is disconcerting.”

At its core, Seiden’s attempt to tar the Lawrence newspaper puts him in the same camp as Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, who wrote the appalling affidavit justifying the raid on the newspaper there, and Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, who approved the same affidavit. They share the same disbelief in the legitimacy of a free press for a free people. They willingly trample First Amendment rights — some of the most precious we have — in an attempt to protect their own power and influence.

The fiasco in Marion generated national attention. This dustup in Douglas County will likely fly under the radar, given that it was conducted in the far more restrained forum of legal filings.

But we should all be on notice. Officials from a supposedly liberal city and county will still work to protect their interests and attempt to discredit reporters. Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, after all, faces disciplinary hearings next month. The Journal-World has covered her office assertively, as it should. Journalists there were right to pursue the release of public information, and they are right to cover her office with all the investigatory expertise they can muster.

As for Seiden and the office, they all have the dishonor of following Marion officials in attempting to shut down reporting from an outlet they apparently don’t like.

This shouldn’t be complicated, folks. Read your U.S. Constitution. Understand your First Amendment.

You’ll get it right eventually.

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.

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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.