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Free press? Why a raid on a rural Kansas weekly caused such a ruckus

In mid-August 2023, law enforcement officers in a rural Kansas county raided the offices and homes of the editors of a local newspaper, seizing electronic newsgathering equipment and reporting materials and resulting in a nationwide uproar over the threats to our First Amendment principles of a free press. ~ Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press


To catch you up on the story, here are links to (and highlights from) various press reports:

---How a small-town feud in Kansas sent a shock through American journalism (Jonathan O'Connell, Paul Farhi and Sofia Andrade, Washington Post, 8-26-23. Illustrated.) 'A police raid without precedent on a weekly newspaper alarmed First Amendment advocates. The real story of how it happened, though, is rooted in the roiling tensions and complex history of a few key community members.

     'The emotional response to the raid was heightened by the sudden death of the editor's 98-year-old mother, who had railed furiously at the officers sorting through her belongings at their home and collapsed a day later. The Record blamed her death on her agitation over the raid.

     "Get out of my house!" Joan Meyer had shouted at Cody from behind her walker before calling him an expletive, home surveillance video revealed.       "Don't you touch any of that stuff!"
     'Yet parsing the events that led to the search — and understanding its larger implications for a free press in the United States — comes down to untangling the complex interrelationships and tortured history of a small group of people coexisting in a single small town.
     'At the center of everything were a business owner, a police chief and a newspaper.

---A conversation with the newspaper owner raided by cops (Marisa Kabas, The Handbasket, 8-12-23) Eric Meyer says his paper had been investigating the police chief prior to the raids on his office and home. [This is the piece that took the story viral.]

---The Marion raid and the Privacy Protection Act (Gabe Rottman, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 8-21-23) How does the “subpoena-first” rule in the Privacy Protection Act actually work?

     "The raid unfolded in Marion, a town about 60 miles north of Wichita, and appears to have stemmed from a dispute between a local restaurant owner and her estranged husband in a divorce proceeding."
   "During the raid, the police carted off computers, cell phones, and documents. The computers, and possibly the phones, will contain not only raw reporting material — information and documents gathered, maybe photographs, etc. — but also things like unpublished stories and other actual “news” that reflects the editorial work of the reporters at the Record (all that stuff on all the computers seized). There is no "subpoena-first" rule for the latter, but it receives higher protections than the raw “documentary material” that is obtainable with a subpoena.

   RCFP addresses the question How does the "subpoena-first" rule in the Privacy Protection Act — the federal law limiting law enforcement's ability to conduct newsroom searches — actually work?  In so doing the authors unpack and clarify several terms — "work product" and "documentary materials" and "unlawful acts" — as well as several exceptions: the "suspect" exception and threats to life or limb, and “reason to believe” and the “subpoena-first” exception. And they conclude:

     "In short, it is true that the "subpoena-first" exception reflects the law's intention that police always use the least intrusive means possible when inquiring into the business of the newsroom, and, in practice, gives affected journalists and news organizations the ability to negotiate or challenge a legal demand. But it's important to remember that there is no such rule for a reporter's actual work, in recognition of the heightened sensitivity there. And that's potentially relevant in the Marion case in that the police department may have seized work product related to the newspaper's investigation into the police chief himself."

---After a police raid on a Kansas newspaper, questions mount (Sofia Andrade and Paul Farhi, Washington Post, 8-13-23) Law enforcement seized computers and other records from the Marion County Record on Friday, raising concerns about press freedom. 

     '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...

     Restaurant owner Kari Newell "claimed that the newspaper, the Marion County Record, had illegally obtained damaging information about a 2008 conviction for drunken driving and was preparing to publish it, leading a local judge to issue a warrant authorizing police to seize the newspaper’s files.
     'The Record, a family-owned weekly serving the small town of about 1,900, didn’t publish the information about Newell’s conviction for drunken driving and has denied that it came by it illegally.
      '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. She added: “Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy. … We’re not going to let this stand on our watch.”
     '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.”

---Warrant for Kansas newspaper raid withdrawn by prosecutor for ‘insufficient evidence’ (Luke Nozicka, Jonathan Shorman, and Katie Moore, Kansas City Star, 8-30-23) On Wednesday, August 16, the county prosecutor withdrew the search warrant and directed law enforcement to return the seized material. 


This ruckus is and should be a big deal in a country that values a free press. 

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