Whether it happened in a small Kansas town or a major metropolitan area, a police raid on a newspaper should be disturbing to all Americans who believe in the rule of law and the First Amendment.
On Aug. 11, police in the 2,000-person city of Marion, Kan., raided the offices of the Marion County Record, the home of the newspaper’s publisher and the home of the city’s vice mayor. Officers seized computers, cellphones and documents after obtaining a two-page warrant, and police said they were acting on probable cause that “identity theft” and “unlawful acts concerning computers” had been committed. A probable cause affidavit, which is supposed to accompany the warrant, reportedly was not included.
The action surrounded a local restaurateur, Kari Newell. According to the newspaper, reporters had received a tip about Newell’s drunken-driving record, and a reporter logged onto a state website for verification. The reporter identified herself and confirmed the information.
Editors concluded the information had come from Newell’s estranged husband and decided not to publish it. The information was relevant because Newell was seeking a liquor license from the city, and her history had been raised by the vice mayor at a recent city council session. Newell also had brought up the issue at a public meeting.
Adding to the situation, the publisher said the newspaper also was investigating a tip that the police chief, Gideon Cody, had left a previous job in Kansas City, Mo., to avoid allegations of sexual misconduct. The paper never published the information, but details about the investigation — including the identities of accusers — were in a computer seized by police.
The incident points out the reason for laws protecting journalists who are responsibly doing their jobs. Investigating allegations, determining the facts and deciding whether or not information should be made public is an essential part of democracy.
In a town that is 60 miles from any sizable cities, if the local newspaper does not hold officials accountable, nobody will. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
The First Amendment, of course, guarantees that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” And the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980 protects the flow of information to journalists, preventing law enforcement from searching for or seizing reporters’ materials. Narrow exceptions are included regarding public endangerment.
In addition, all but one state (Wyoming) has passed a shield law to protect reporters from government intrusion. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Washington’s law (RCW 5.68.010) was signed in 2007 and provides the news media with “absolute protection for confidential sources and qualified protection for other journalistic materials and information.”
Such protections are necessary. With newspapers frequently closing in rural areas, many communities are left as “news deserts,” bereft of watchdogs keeping an eye on local officials. And with increasing numbers of Americans open to the prospect of totalitarianism, government control of information is a growing possibility.
Both scenarios represent a diminishment of our democracy, a whittling away of the norms have that have bolstered our republic for centuries. Because of that, the raid of a newspaper in a small Kansas town warrants thoughtful attention from all Americans.