Three months after newsroom raid, Marion editor’s advice resounds: Speak out and don’t be afraid

November 6, 2023 3:33 am

Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer appears for a Nov. 3, 2023, recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

In the nearly three months since law enforcement raided the Marion County Record, we’ve seen an abundance of news coverage and a handful of changes on the ground.

Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody resigned after scrutiny of his career and actions around the search. Record editor and publisher Eric Meyer received the Above and Beyond Award from the Kansas Coalition for Open Government at a Friday luncheon. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation continues to look into the whole affair.

Yet a new account of authorities’ unprecedented assault on free expression brings home how much remains to be done in Kansas and across the nation to protect our constitutional rights.

“Democracy means not just listening to other people, but speaking,” Meyer told me during this week’s Kansas Reflector podcast. “That means speaking out and not being afraid to speak out. And that you need to create an environment in which people don’t feel afraid to speak out, they don’t think that they’re going to be accused of being dumb, or being out of step, or being unpopular.”

Meyer and the rest of us in the state and national news media spoke out after the August 11 raid. Reporters and columnists alike turned their attention to the tiny town of Marion, especially after the death of newspaper co-owner Joan Meyer, 98. Everyone sent a clear message: Those in power should not trample a free press in the pursuit of power or personal vendettas. If they do, they will draw immediate scrutiny.

The state listened. Our country listened. Indeed, countries across the world listened.

But I worry. Local officials in other states appear to have missed the point. In Alabama, Atmore News publisher and co-owner Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher were arrested last month and charged with felonies. Their supposed crimes? Informing readers about grand jury evidence in a case of local interest.

The Committee to Protect Journalists “calls on local authorities to immediately drop all charges against them,” said Katherine Jacobsen, CPJ’s U.S. and Canada program coordinator, in a statement. “They should not be prosecuted for simply doing their jobs and covering a matter of local interest, such as the allocation of school board funds. Journalists play a crucial role in their local communities. Arresting them creates a chilling effect and is a gross misuse of taxpayer funds.”

It gets worse. Apparently Digmon and Fletcher’s bail terms “essentially prohibit the paper from reporting on crime,” according to the Freedom of the Press Foundation. The two have been forbidden from communication about criminal investigations — even those that don’t have anything to do with their case.

To their credit, national news organizations have picked up on the Alabama story. Thank goodness. Yet the situation seems to have attracted less attention than the Marion raid, and the stories I found online stuck to a cautious, muted tone.

If we want to keep a free press, we have to fight for it.

A memorial for Joan Meyer outside the newspaper office Aug. 16, 2023, with the latest edition of the newspaper for sale. The headline reads: "SEIZED ... but not silenced."
A memorial for Joan Meyer outside the newspaper office Aug. 16, 2023, with the latest edition of the newspaper for sale. The headline reads: “SEIZED … but not silenced.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

That requires speaking up and speaking out every time local officials choose to abuse their authority to prosecute those trying to inform the public. We can’t only cover a story when it features a tart-tongued 98-year-old.

“One of the things that was on our recordings of the raid was my mother, who died the next day, was talking about: ‘You’re making international headlines by doing this, you Hitler people,’ other things that she called them,” Meyer said on Friday. “And they laughed at her. And they thought, what do you mean international headlines? Well, it was, and I don’t think they realized that there would be that kind of reaction.”

Joan Meyer fought, even though the stress arguably cost her life. She stood up to those who would abuse power and left no question about where she stood.

Reflector editor Sherman Smith’s latest story underlines how much we didn’t know back in August. He now reports definitively that officials at the KBI, Department of Revenue and Marion County sheriff’s office all knew about the raid beforehand. The county attorney had advance copies of the search warrant applications. All of the departments tasked with preventing an abuse of power by local officials stepped back and let it happen.

At some points, they even stepped forward to help.

Those who care about the U.S. Constitution and the future of our nation must care about our rights. Those include a free and unencumbered press, along with the ability to express ourselves openly. In memory of Joan Meyer, and in tribute to the work of her son and his staff at the Marion County Record, let’s commit ourselves to preserving those rights.

Not just in August of this year, not just for a few days here or there, but all the time.

Let’s find the bravery within all of us to take a stand for what matters.

“You know, some of the greatest things in the world have happened because people have changed their minds from what the most prevailing popular position is,” Eric Meyer said. “If we were to just go with what was popular, we would never have had Brown v. Board of Education, we would have never had — although it’s been overturned — Roe v. Wade, we would never had same sex marriage. …

“There’s a lot of things that people have changed their minds on, society has changed their minds on, because people have been willing to speak up.”

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.