The Committee to Protect Journalists is calling for an investigation into the raid at the Marion County Record, the Kansas newspaper at the center of a sharply criticized police investigation.
CPJ’s U.S. program coordinator Katherine Jacobsen said the search and seizure of items that unfolded at the newspaper’s office on Aug. 11 was a violation of state and federal laws that protect journalists. CPJ is an international nonprofit that promotes press freedom and works to defend journalists against repression across the globe.
She said there needs to be a “thorough investigation” into why the Marion Police Department presented the search warrant and why it was signed by Magistrate Judge Laura Viar.
“At CPJ, we don’t really have a record of anything like this happening in the United States on the scale,” Jacobsen said.
Many items from the newspaper including cellphones and computers were taken during the raid led by the Marion Police Department.
Since then, the town of about 2,000 people located about 155 miles southwest of Kansas City, has received national and international attention. Free press organizations and individuals have widely condemned the raid. While a few individual journalists have been the subjects of a raid through a warrant, it appears unheard of for such actions to be taken at an entire newspaper in the U.S.
On Tuesday, the newspaper’s staff of 10 worked feverishly to get Wednesday’s edition published without their servers and other equipment.
Jacobsen said impeding a newspaper from its work was “doing a disservice to to people who live there really and more broadly speaking to American democracy.”
“This isn’t a partisan issue,” she said. “People want to have their local news source.”
Wednesday’s paper landed on doorsteps with the headline “SEIZED…but not silenced.”
Later that day, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation announced the search warrant was being withdrawn.
In a statement, Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey said he concluded that “insufficient evidence” existed to establish a “legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized.”
Around 3 p.m., a forensic expert arrived at the sheriff’s office across the street from the newspaper where he picked up electronic devices to be examined to ensure they had not been opened.
Jacobsen said it was heartening to see the warrant withdrawn.
“However, part of the damage cannot be done, right? And that’s the fact that the search warrant was even signed in the first place.”
She continued, saying it was concerning that the police department has not provided an explanation or made an assurance that such actions will not take place again.
“Until those steps are taken, it sends a real chilling effect on public interest journalism in Marion and in Kansas more broadly,” Jacobsen said. “And that’s a really harmful precedent for local journalists across the United States.”
‘We intend to find the truth’
Bernie Rhodes, an attorney who is representing the Record in this case, said Thursday that he welcomes an independent investigation.
He also said his firm and the paper are conducting their own investigation.
“Between all of them, we intend to find the truth,” said Rhodes, who is also The Star’s attorney. Returning the seized items, he continued, was the first step, but “does not end this.”
The newspaper needs to be compensated for the damage to First Amendment rights it endured, Rhodes said.
A search warrant shows police were looking for evidence that a reporter had run an improper computer search to confirm an report that a local business owner applying for a liquor license had lost her driver’s license over a DUI.
The newspaper had also investigated the town’s new police chief, Gideon Cody, but decided against publishing a story, newspaper owner and publisher Eric Meyer has said.
Cody had been a police officer with the Kansas City Police Department for 24 years before leaving for Marion in May. At the time, he was under internal review for allegedly making insulting and sexist comments to a female officer, The Star discovered.
On Monday, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation announced it was leading the investigation into the computer search.
Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach oversees the KBI and said there were allegations of improper access to the Kansas Criminal Justice Information System (KCJIS).
The KBI would not be reviewing the raid itself, Kobach said.
“Their role as I understand it now is not an evaluation of constitutional claims about the raid,” he said. “The principal interest of course is the KCJIS system since one of the allegations I believe, involves improper access to KCJIS information.”
Though the warrant was rescinded, Meyer said they are still contemplating filing a lawsuit.
“I don’t care about the money,” he said. “I’d probably donate it to some charity somewhere. But it’s mostly to set the example.”