The Society of Professional Journalists offered $20,000 to legal defense of the Marion County Record, which was raided by local law enforcement Friday based on allegations the newspaper engaged in identity theft to secure information about a local merchant's drunken driving conviction. The newspaper says the information was legally obtained and the police search was illegal. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
August 14, 2023

TOPEKA — The Society of Professional Journalists’ board unanimously offered $20,000 to the family-owned Marion County Record for legal costs in wake of the seizure of newspaper and personal property by local law enforcement investigating allegations of identity theft and illegal use of a computer.

The raid undermining operation of the weekly newspaper alarmed First Amendment champions, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 33 other news media and press organizations that sent a protest letter to Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody.

“By all accounts, the raid was an egregious attack on freedom of the press, the First Amendment and all the liberties we hold dear as journalists in this great country,” said Claire Regan, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “From the moment they learned about the raid, SPJ members have been speaking up and stepping forward to demand justice, hold the responsible accountable and support the Record staff in their recovery.”

The decision of local law enforcement to execute search warrants Friday on the Marion County Record’s office, the publisher’s home and the residence of Marion City Council member Ruth Herbel exposed a web of intrigue tied to a local restaurant owner’s 2008 drunken driving conviction and her pending application for a liquor license.

Restaurateur Kari Newell had previously alleged during a Marion City Council meeting that Herbel “negligently and maliciously” engaged in theft of information about Newell’s driving record. Newell also accused the Marion County Record of violating her privacy by examining government records revealing her driving record.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which is under authority of Attorney General Kris Kobach, assigned an agent to the case prior to the raid at the request of Marion law enforcement officials. On Sunday, KBI Director Tony Mattivi said he supported freedom of the press but defended use of search warrants when examining credible allegations of wrongdoing. Mattivi said “no one is above the law,” including representatives of the media.

There are pending requests from news organizations for release by Marion County District Court of the probable cause affidavit relied upon by Magistrate Judge Laura Viar to grant the search warrant.

Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer, who said damaging information about Newell’s conviction was legally obtained from sources, said a federal lawsuit could be filed in response to the “illegal” raid. Meyer said the search of his home may have contributed to the Saturday death of his 98-year-old mother, Joan, who was co-owner of the newspaper and present during the residential search leading to seizure of computers, cellphones and other property.

The University of Kansas’ journalism school issued a statement noting Joan Meyer’s death and saying it stood by graduates of the university, including Eric Meyer, and “all journalists who work tirelessly, and often at great personal cost, to ensure that the public is well informed.” The journalism school and the William Allen White Foundation’s board said “any threat to journalism is a threat to democracy itself.”

The letter sent to the Marion police chief by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the search warrant directed at the Marion County Record was “significantly overbroad, improperly intrusive and possibly in violation of federal law.”

The letter urged law enforcement to return confiscated computers, servers, telephones and records to the newspaper, purge newspaper records retained by the police department and conduct a transparent inquiry into the department’s conduct.

“The newsroom is sacrosanct,” said the SPJ’s Regan. “Interrupting its operation is a threat to democracy. SPJ offers its full support to the staff of the Marion County Record following this outrageous attack on freedom of the press.”

The Marion Police Department said in a statement Saturday the agency was justified in investigating suspected criminal activity and was responding to the restaurant owner’s demand that “justice is served.”

Max Kautsch, a Lawrence attorney with the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, said the organization condemned the searches and seizure of property from offices of the Marion County Recordand the home of its publisher. He said law enforcement authorities ignored First Amendment rights.

The Kansas organization urged law enforcement in Marion to release the affidavit so the public could assess whether actions of authorities was justified, Kautsch said.

“Law enforcement has refused to explain the facts that led to the issuance of the warrant,” Kautsch said. “Given the publicity surrounding this matter, and that details of the incident have been heavily publicized as a result of the reporting by the Record and others, there is no longer any reason to withhold the affidavit supporting the request to issue the search warrant.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Recent Stories