A central Kansas police chief was not only on legally shaky ground when he ordered the raid of a weekly newspaper, experts said, but it may have been a criminal violation of civil rights, a former federal prosecutor added, saying: “I’d probably have the FBI starting to look.”
Some legal experts believe the Aug. 11 raid on the Marion County Record’s offices and the home of its publisher violated a federal privacy law that protects journalists from having their newsrooms searched.
Some believe it violated a Kansas law that makes it more difficult to force reporters and editors to disclose their sources or unpublished material.
Part of the debate centers around Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody’s reasons for the raid. A warrant suggested that police were looking for evidence that the Record’s staff broke state laws against identity theft and computer crimes while verifying information about a local restaurant owner. But the police also seized the computer tower and personal cellphone belonging to a reporter who had investigated Cody’s background.
The raid brought international attention to the newspaper and the small town of 1,900 — foisted to the center of a debate over press freedoms. Recent events have exposed roiling divisions over local politics and the newspaper’s aggressive coverage. But it also focused an intense spotlight on Cody in only his third month on the job.
The investigation into whether the newspaper broke state laws continues, now led by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. State Attorney General Kris Kobach has said he doesn’t see the KBI’s role as investigating the police’s conduct, and that prompted some to question whether the federal government would get involved. Spokespersons for the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
Stephen McAllister, a U.S. attorney for Kansas during former President Donald Trump’s administration, said the raid opened Cody, the city and others to lawsuits for alleged civil right violations. And, he added, “We also have some exposure to federal criminal prosecution.”
The five-member Marion City Council was scheduled to have its first meeting since the raid [a week ago].
The agenda says, in red: “COUNCIL WILL NOT COMMENT ON THE ONGOING CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION AT THIS MEETING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The Record is known for its aggressive coverage of local politics and its community about 150 miles southwest of Kansas City, Missouri. It received an outpouring of support from other news organizations and media groups after the raid, and Editor and Publisher Eric Meyer said that it had picked up 4,000 additional subscribers, enough to double the size of its press run, though many of the new subscriptions are digital.
But the raids did have some backers in town. Jared Smith blames the newspaper’s coverage for the demise of his wife’s day spa business and believes the newspaper is too negative.
“I would love to see the paper go down,” he said.
Meyer rejects criticism of his newspaper’s reporting and said critics are upset because it’s attempting to hold local officials accountable.
“We get confidential things from people all the time and we check them out,” said Doug Anstaett, a retired Kansas Press Association executive director. “And sometimes we know they’re silly, but most of the time we get a tip, we check it out. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
Anstaett said he believes the state’s shield law for journalists, enacted in 2010 by the Republican-controlled Legislature, should have protected the paper.