WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – The publisher of the long-standing Marion County Record said his paper was raided this week by the Marion Police Department, who took computers, servers and cell phones.

The incident is a violation of First Amendment rights, according to publisher Eric Meyer.

Two clips were provided to KSN News by Meyer:

The paper is struggling to make its Tuesday publishing deadline while missing essential equipment, according to Meyer, who said the investigation by Marion police was unfounded.

According to Meyer, there were questions about a story one week before the police came into his business. His newspaper notified the sheriff and the police chief that they’d obtained documents from the state that a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell, had driven on a suspended license after getting a DUI.

“They started the investigation because we told them this document had come into us with the allegation that police were ignoring the driving for 14 years or something like that,” Meyer said.

The Marion County Record told law enforcement they had no plans to publish the information in a story, but one week later, police came into the building and seized equipment, according to Meyer. They also went into his home, Meyer said.

The co-owner of the newspaper Joan Meyer, who is also Eric’s mother, died a day after the raid into her home.

Joan Meyer’s photo outside of the Marion Record (KSN Photo)

“I asked the coroner who had previously been one of her attending physicians, I said, ‘Do you think the stress caused this?'” Meyer said. “He says, ‘Absolutely.’ In other words, they killed my mother.”

The raid was an unnecessary show of power and a violation of the freedom of the press, according to Meyer.

In a statement, the Marion Police Department said they had a right to search a news agency office if a journalist was suspected of a crime listed in a search warrant.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said it assigned an agent to the case earlier in the week at the request of the Marion County attorney. The KBI was asked to join an investigation into allegations of illegal access to confidential criminal justice information, according to the agency. The KBI was not present when the warrants were served.

The Marion Police Department and the Marion County Attorney asked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) to join an investigation into allegations of illegal access and dissemination of confidential criminal justice information. The KBI assigned an agent to this case last Tuesday, and has been assisting since that time. The KBI agent did not apply for the search warrants in question, and he was not present when the warrants were served.

Director Mattivi believes very strongly that freedom of the press is a vanguard of American democracy. Without free speech and a free press, our society is not likely to see appropriate accountability of public officials. But another principle of our free society is equal application of the law. The KBI is entrusted to investigate credible allegations of illegal activity without fear or favor. In order to investigate and gather facts, the KBI commonly executes search warrants on police departments, sheriff’s offices, and at city, county and state offices. We have investigated those who work at schools, churches and at all levels of public service. No one is above the law, whether a public official or a representative of the media.

Melissa Underwood, KBI communications director

For now, even though the paper lost vital equipment taken by police, Meyer said the plan is to publish the weekly issue. It will be published Wednesday.

“We will publish the newspaper,” Meyer said. “We will publish the newspaper if I have to grab a pencil and write it on a piece of paper and hand it to everybody as they walk around the town.”

The newspaper’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes of Kansas City, sent a letter to Police Chief Gideon Cody demanding that police not review any information on the computers or cellphones seized, saying they were taken illegally and contain identities of confidential sources.

Meantime, dozens of news organizations, including CNN, The Washington Post and The Associated Press, signed a four-page letter condemning the actions of the police department.

The Kansas Society of Professional Journalists issued the following statement:

The Board of Directors of the Kansas Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists condemns law enforcement officials, including the Marion City Police and Marion County Sheriff’s Department, and the Magistrate Court of Marion County for a blatantly illegal raid and seizure of intellectual property on Aug. 11 from the offices and journalists of the Marion County Record.

Marion Chief of Police Gideon Cody has refused to publicly disclose any alleged crimes committed by journalists. He has claimed he will be vindicated when all of the facts come out. We ask that those facts be revealed immediately. The entire world is watching.

Such a huge breach of the public trust is a dangerous affront to the entire system of checks and balances necessary in a healthy democracy.

According to reporting by the Kansas Reflector, “the raid followed news stories about a restaurant owner who kicked reporters out of a meeting last week with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, and revelations about the restaurant owner’s lack of a driver’s license and conviction for drunken driving.”

We join Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, who said the police raid is unprecedented in Kansas. “An attack on a newspaper office through an illegal search is not just an infringement on the rights of journalists but an assault on the very foundation of democracy and the public’s right to know,” Bradbury said. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”

However, law enforcement could not have executed this illegal raid without the signing of a warrant by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar.

The Kansas Professional Chapter of SPJ Board of Directors is particularly disappointed with the actions of Viar, which we assert violate established federal law protecting journalists and news organizations from searches and seizures of materials. Federal law requires law enforcement to instead subpoena materials from journalists, a precedent that has been upheld by U.S. Supreme Court ruling dating back more than 45 years.

Viar, who was appointed as magistrate judge in November 2022, has displayed either a lack of knowledge or a blatant disregard for the law. Either way, the citizens of Marion County and Kansas should be distressed at the judge for signing off on what is clearly an illegal raid.

We call on the 8th Judicial District Chief Judge Benjamin Sexton to rescind the illegal warrant and order the immediate return of materials to the Marion County Record and its employees. Further, we believe Viar’s actions should be reviewed by the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct.

We join journalists and First Amendment supporters from around the world who are sounding the alarm of this attack on the foundation of American journalism. Attempting to criminalize news gathering is beneath contempt and worthy of condemnation.

The shame of law enforcement and the courts of Marion County stain all Kansans and must never be repeated.

Molly McMillin, President of Kansas Pro Chapter Society of Professional Journalists

KSN News has filed open records requests with the City of Marion, Marion County and 8th Judicial District Court for the warrants and probable cause affidavits that led to the searches.