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EDITORIAL: NEWS OUT OF KANSAS TROUBLESOME AT BEST | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

Our opinion: The search and seizure of the Marion County Record threatens, not only the free press, but democracy itself.

The news that broke out of Marion, Kansas over the weekend following the search and seizure of the Marion County Record’s newsroom and publisher’s home is troubling at best and deeply dangerous at worst. Not only was it reckless and intrusive, but it appears to be in violation of federal law that protects free speech and freedom of the press.

For those who don’t know, here’s what happened.

Last Friday, Aug. 11, law enforcement officers with the Marion Police Department, after obtaining a search warrant from Marion County Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, raided the newsroom of the 4,000-circulation weekly newspaper in the Marion County seat that has a population just shy of 2,000 residents, as well as the home of Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s publisher and co-owner. Among the items seized were computers, cell phones, work product and other documentary materials, crippling the operation and its ability to publish the following week’s edition.

Making matters far worse, on Sunday, Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of the newspaper and Eric’s mother, collapsed and died at her home from what the Record said was stress “beyond her limits” and “hours of shock and grief.”

All this stems from what police say was an unlawful use of computers and identity theft pertaining to Kari Newell, a local coffeeshop owner who earlier in August had asked Eric Meyer and a reporter to leave her establishment during a public meet-and-greet with U.S. Representative Jake LaTurner, who represents the area.

The Record then received an anonymous tip that Newell was not in possession of an active driver’s license and had been convicted of drunk driving — a criminal offense that could jeopardize her efforts to obtain a liquor license for her catering business. Although the Record filed a public records request for information, the Record chose to not publish a story.

Then came the raid.

Law enforcement officials in Marion County have said that when all the facts of the case come to light their actions will be justified. But it’s hard to imagine the newspaper would act in a way that would warrant such an aggressive and debilitating raid by law enforcement — something similar to what might be seen aimed at a child predator or murder suspect.

“Unless there is something egregious in this story that law enforcement has not yet divulged publicly, the facts as we know them today represent a clear violation by the local police of the Marion County Record’s First Amendment rights and journalistic protections under state and federal law,” David Bordewyk, executive director with the South Dakota Newspaper Association, told The Courier in a statement on Monday.

“Taking a broader view, this intimidation and abuse by law enforcement against the local newspaper via the search warrant is just one more example of what we see happening all too often across our country today,” Bordewyk continued. “And that is a growing disregard by law enforcement for journalists’ First Amendment rights and protections to do their job to inform the public, investigate corruption and wrongdoings and be a watchdog on government. It is sad to see happening and I hope it can be reversed or our democracy will suffer greatly.”

Not surprisingly given all that is at stake, it didn’t take long after news of the raid surfaced for the national media to step up and speak out in strong opposition to the action of Marion County authorities.

A letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to Marion Chief of Police Gideon Cody, dated Aug. 13, condemns the search and seizure, and cites multiple grievances and legal sources documenting the violation that occurred. The letter is also signed by 34 other news organizations, including the Associated Press, National Newspaper Association, CBS News, the Kansas Press Association, The New York Times Company, The New Yorker, Reuters News & Media and The Washington Post.

Countless other news outlets large and small have carried coverage of the story, and editorials are expected to appear in community newspapers across the country this week and in the weeks to come to help shed light on what happened in Marion, Kansas, and why it is so troubling.

What is deeply concerning in all of this is the threat levied against the newspaper’s critical role as the fourth estate — that is, a government watchdog critical to a well-functioning democracy. If the press doesn’t keep tabs on those in positions of power — that includes elected officials, law enforcement officers and community leaders who carry high influence — then who will?

The Courier is fortunate to have a solid and long-standing relationship with local and county law enforcement and other government officials (although that doesn’t mean this paper doesn’t turn a blind eye or fail to ask the hard questions when something seems amiss.)

Sadly, that’s not the case everywhere.

With a general distrust of news media that has, in recent years, been encouraged by elected officials with large platforms from which to speak, there is reason for all of us to be troubled. The reality is that news media represent the people, and efforts to intimidate or restrict that constitutional right have a direct effect on citizens and democracy.

The situation in Marion, Kansas will work itself out in one way or another in the weeks to come.

Meanwhile, the Record is making plans to publish another edition this week.

If there is a silver lining here, it’s that the public is being reminded of the valuable role newspapers play in their communities, and that bullying behavior won’t be tolerated by those sourced with providing accurate and important information when needed, whether that’s on a weekly or daily basis, in Kansas, South Dakota and anywhere else.

Given everything that’s been shared to this point, The Courier stands with the Marion County Record and condemns the action of the police department — and the judge who signed the order to raid.

Jeremy Waltner | Editor & Publisher

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