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Police Raid on Small Kansas Newspaper Sets Off First Amendment Alarms

Police Raid on Small Kansas Newspaper Sets Off First Amendment Alarms

"These are Hitler tactics," long-time news writer Joan Meyer said, shortly before her death.

A police raid of a small newspaper in Kansas is sounding alarms for First Amendment rights.

The family-owned Marion County Record newsroom was invaded by police Friday night after a complaint from a local business owner, Kari Newell, who accused two city council members of illegally sharing confidential information about her criminal record with the newspaper. According to The Associated Press, the information included a 2008 drunk driving conviction.

Kansas Newspaper Raid

The paper's publisher, Eric Meyer, said that the station received a tip about the woman's driving record, but never published or distributed the information. The home of his mother, Joan Meyer, was also raided and searched following the complaint.

"These are Hitler tactics, and something has to be done," she told the Wichita Eagle newspaper.

Joan Meyer soon after died on Saturday, according to her son, who said that the raid had rendered her too stressed to eat or sleep. She passed less than two years before her one-hundredth birthday. Meyer had been in the newspaper business since the 1950s, and was still writing a weekly column featuring her memories.

"How dare they take the last day of her life and make her filled with fear and anger," Eric Meyer told ABC News. "It's everything you've ever heard of in the third world. It really is like we're living in Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany or Vladimir Putin's Russia."

While law enforcement had obtained a search warrant for the offices, the federal Privacy Protection Act requires police to obtain a subpoena before they may search newsrooms. Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody contended to ABC that they had "probable cause."

The newspaper's attorney, Bernie Rhodes, sent a letter to Cody on Monday condemning law enforcement's "heavy-handed" response to the complaint. He said that the publication intends to “take every step to obtain relief," and offered Cody an "opportunity to mitigate" the damages "from the illegal searches you personally authorized, directed, and conducted.”

Rhodes said that police “plainly violated the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as Sections 11, 15, and 18 of the Kansas Bill of Rights," noting: "Your personal decision to treat the local newspaper as a drug cartel or a street gang offends the constitutional protections the founding fathers gave the free press."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also contacted Cody with a letter that deemed the searches unconstitutional. It was co-signed by 34 news and media organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Associated Press. The Society of Professional Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists also pledged $20,000 in legal defense funds for the Record.

“Newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech by the press and the public,” the letter reads. "There appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search -- particularly when other investigative steps may have been available -- and we are concerned that it may have violated federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to conduct newsroom searches."

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