Newspaper Raid Highlights Crucial Importance of Free Speech

September 15, 2023   •  By Tom Garrett   •    •  

This piece originally appeared in The Messenger on September 15, 2023.


A small Kansas town recently became an unlikely — but pivotal — free speech battleground. Last month, Americans learned the troubling details of what happened in Marion, Kan. On the morning of August 11, the town’s entire five-officer local police force, along with two sheriff’s deputies, raided the offices of the weekly newspaper, the Marion County Record, and the home of publisher and co-owner Eric Meyer. The pretense for the raid was a very broad, now-withdrawn warrant. The officers seized computers, phones, and servers and searched individual reporters’ personal devices, all of which rendered normal business operations extremely difficult.

And that might have been the entire point.

The Record had frequently criticized local leaders through investigative journalism that was unusually vigorous for such a small operation.

When local restaurant owner Kari Newell alleged that someone at the paper may have committed “identity theft” to obtain confidential information regarding a 2008 conviction for drunk driving, Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody — perhaps seeing an opportunity to punish inconvenient criticism — sprang into action. The paper has had a strained relationship with Cody, who ended the practice of providing the Record with material for its police blotter.

Although the paper didn’t publish the drunk driving information and had actually reached out to both the local sheriff and the police chief to alert them that a source may have given them improperly obtained information, the full Marion police force descended upon the newsroom for the raid.

According to Meyer, Newell claimed that the people of Marion have congratulated her for “finally standing up to the Record.

Nothing revealed to date could justify such an intrusive raid. If the paper indeed violated a law, there are other less invasive and disruptive ways to gather evidence. However, the fact that Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey subsequently withdrew the warrant due to “insufficient” evidence speaks to the especially reckless nature of the intrusion on the paper’s rights.

Even if the warrant hadn’t had that defect, this brazen infringement on press freedom appeared contrary to the federal Privacy Protection Act, which places limits on search warrants targeting journalists. Officers should have subpoenaed the journalistic work product to seize such materials properly.

Despite the subsequent withdrawal of the warrant, the damage was done. The raid not only made it difficult for the Record to continue publishing it will undoubtedly chill other small outlets from publishing, or chill sources from speaking to the paper.

The organization for which I work, the Institute for Free Speech, defends the political rights to free speech, press, assembly, and petition guaranteed by the First Amendment.  If there’s a silver lining to this deeply concerning story, it’s that the events in Marion illustrate perfectly why these rights are foundational to a properly functioning democracy.

A press that is free to engage in investigative journalism — and, when necessary, to criticize those in power — plays an essential role in any society that values truth and transparency.

Such speech is vital to providing accountability for elected officials, facilitating open debate, and finding and exposing failed policies or corruption. Moreover, the First Amendment’s protections require government officials to refrain from intimidating speakers or suppressing lawful speech on matters of public concern, even if they find that speech to be personally objectionable.

The Marion raid and the response to it also provide a heartening example of just how peculiar and offensive such a transgression is to most Americans. A raid on a newspaper seems oddly out-of-place in our country, more akin to something one might see under a totalitarian regime. Thankfully, organizations like mine, journalists, and other prominent individuals who champion free speech condemned these acts in the days and weeks that followed. Likewise, public support for the paper surged.

That united front against heinous overreach hopefully signals that this sort of incident will remain nothing more than an embarrassing outlier. Nonetheless, the raid in Marion was a powerful reminder that even in 2023, the most fundamental rights — rights many people may take for granted — still require vigorous defense and protection.

Tom Garrett

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