There are so many things wrong with this story that it is hard to know where to start. But the conclusion – a police raid on a local newspaper office to seize computers and records – raises enough questions by itself to warrant serious attention.
At its heart, this is a story about an unhappy local restaurateur in Marion County, Kansas, who so disliked the leaking of personally disparaging information from an unidentified source that she took retaliation against the town’s newspaper – which never printed the information.
But the full five-member Marion Police Department and two sheriff’s deputies last week showed up at the Marion County Record office and its publisher’s home to seize computers, cellphones and reporting notes, according to The Kansas Reflector.
The raid came on a search warrant that challengers want opened to show the reasoning by county District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar. It appears to violate federal law that provides protections against searching and seizing materials from journalists, requiring law enforcement to subpoena materials instead. No one has heard from the judge yet.
In the silence, we’re hearing from the Kansas Press Association and other journalist groups about the chilling effect that such a seizure might have on news collecting, whether in a small town or the nation’s capital. And the family owners of the newspaper are saying that stress from the raid contributed to the sudden death over the weekend of co-owner Joan Meyer.
A Weird Story
A lot of details are in the stories that the Marion County Record did print – after restauranteur Kari Newell first insisted that reporters be tossed out from a reception for the local congressman, Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner – and then about city council deliberations following the leak to the newspaper that Newton is driving without a valid license following a conviction for drunk driving.
LaTurner’s staff apologized for the exclusion, which the Record noted, but Newell posted hostile comments on her personal Facebook page. Then a confidential source contacted the newspaper and provided evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license – information that could jeopardize her efforts to obtain a liquor license for her catering business.
A Marion Record reporter used a state website to verify the information. But publisher Eric Meyer suspected the source was relaying information from Newell’s estranged husband, who has filed for divorce, and decided not to publish a story about the information.
Instead, he alerted police to the situation. Police notified Newell, who then complained at a city council meeting that the newspaper had illegally obtained and disseminated sensitive documents, a misstatement covered by the Record on Thursday.
The next morning, police showed up simultaneously at Meyer’s home and the newspaper office with a search warrant to seize computer software and hardware, digital communications, cellular networks, servers and hard drives, and all documents and records pertaining to Newell. The warrant specifically targeted ownership of computers capable of being used to “participate in the identity theft of Kari Newell,” but also included items like advertising scheduled for the next issue.
Newell, who was before the city council for a liquor license for her catering business, has owned up to her conviction, but the council granted it anyway for catering sites only. The liquor license for the restaurant she owns had been granted to a previous owner and will expire soon, requiring a new decision.
One council member said that she too had been leaked the same information as the newspaper and had passed it on to the city administrator.
On Friday, Newell said on Facebook that said she “foolishly” received a DUI in 2008 and “knowingly operated a vehicle without a license out of necessity.” So, truth is not an issue here. However, she did launch a grenade at “Journalists (who) have become the dirty politicians of today, twisting narrative for bias agendas, full of muddied half-truths,” Newell wrote. “We rarely get facts that aren’t baited with misleading insinuations.” She acknowledged that the “entire debacle was brought forth in an attempt to smear my name, jeopardize my licensing through ABC (state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division), harm my business, seek retaliation, and for personal leverage in an ongoing domestic court battle.”
The police have not explained their behaviors and the judge has not outlined why the search warrant was issued.
The restaurateur got what she had sought from the city council.
And the newspaper – and journalism more generally – has taken a gut punch based on no discernible reasoning. To check information sounds good; to decide not to publish personal information sounds careful; to get raided for not publishing it sounds, well, weird.
From where I sit, a bunch of people took actions without thinking them through and on what appear to be shaky legal grounds.