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Police raid small paper in Kansas, prompting national outcry over press freedom

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

First to Marion, Kan., a town of fewer than 2,000 residents where the entire police force raided the newsroom of the only newspaper that covers the town. It's called the Marion County Record. The raid highlights the clash between law enforcement and the press there and has also sparked an outcry over apparent violations of press freedoms. Joining us now to talk about the story and the broader implications are NPR's Danielle Kaye and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey to both of you.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Danielle, I want to start with you, because I know that you've been reporting the ins and outs of this story. And I understand that you are speaking with the paper's publisher. What is he telling you?

KAYE: Yeah, I am. So Eric Meyer is the publisher and co-owner of the Marion County Record. He says on Friday morning, police entered the newspaper's office and his 98-year-old mother's home, where he was staying at the time. Officers took reporters' computers, cellphones and other reporting materials. And Meyer's mother passed away the day after the raid.

CHANG: Wow.

KAYE: He thinks the stress of the raid contributed to her death. A county judge had signed off on a search warrant for this raid. But how the police got that warrant does raise some red flags. The warrant says that the police are investigating the newsroom for identity theft involving a local restaurant owner. The paper was looking into an allegation about her driving record, and they never actually published anything. Law enforcement hasn't released the document that would explain the basis for this raid. And my conversations with the paper's publisher suggest the motivation for this raid could go far beyond what the warrant claims. Here's Meyer talking about how his newsroom was looking into allegations of misconduct against the police chief before he was sworn into the job on June 1.

ERIC MEYER: It was alarming, to say the least. The number of people who came forward and some of the allegations that they made were fairly serious.

KAYE: And I do want to stress here that Meyer doesn't know if the raid was connected to his paper's reporting on the police chief's background. They didn't end up publishing any of the allegations against him. But Meyer says the chief knew about their reporting, and he allegedly threatened to sue the paper if they did publish anything.

CHANG: Has there been any response from the police chief or the department?

KAYE: Well, in a statement, the police chief justified the raid, saying there are exceptions to established protections for newsrooms, and this case was one of them. I also asked the chief if he knew that he was being investigated by the newspaper and if the raid on the paper was linked to that investigation, but he declined to comment on either of those questions.

CHANG: OK. Well, David, let's go to you, because I want to understand the bigger picture here. Like, how common is it for journalists to be raided by law enforcement?

FOLKENFLIK: So you've heard there from Danielle about there the intimate and human-scale small-town newspaper, small-town police force. But, you know, when we think about hearing about such things, you think about hearing about this in the Philippines. You think about hearing about this in Turkey or Russia...

CHANG: Yeah, not America.

FOLKENFLIK: ...You know, under somewhat repressive regimes, not America. If you pull back 30,000 feet, this stuff doesn't happen. And it doesn't happen for a reason. You know, about over two decades ago, there was a case involving the Stanford Daily newspaper, which was taken all the way to the Supreme Court where police officials wanted and took - they came with a warrant and took, without warning, all this film of pictures taken at a protest. They wanted to see if they could prove protesters had committed crimes, particularly apparently against law enforcement officials. And they sued.

And Supreme Court said basically, look. This kind of violates First Amendment protections to some degree. It violates Fourth Amendment constitutional protections under unreasonable search and seizure. But there aren't certain kinds of explicit protections against getting information about third parties. Congress came back the next year and said, we're going to write that in. So there's going to be some tough protections.

If you think in almost two decades later in San Francisco, 2019, a freelance reporter named Bryan Carmody was raided by police. They had a warrant, as well. They came with sledgehammers to get his stuff, to take his his devices from home. And what happened was that San Francisco had to pay and agreed to pay him $369,000 because they violated his rights. What the rules of the road are now is that you're required to essentially get a subpoena to ask for the information. Then subpoena is a legal request for information. It slows the process down. You're a former lawyer. You know this. It gives their lawyers a chance to challenge it, to test whether or not the basis on which this information is being desired is valid and whether they should have this ability to do that, to go and get the info.

CHANG: OK. But there was no subpoena here. So what does it tell you, David, that this raid in Marion, Kan., happened anyway on this newspaper?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, even the FBI doesn't just go out and raid newspapers. And The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal is going to report about stuff involving the Pentagon or National Security Agency, things that are national security secrets. They don't just go raid it. They challenge it. They demand information. Sometimes, they go after leaks. And you've seen in the Trump years that's been pursued with even more of a vengeance. But they don't simply go out and wantonly take devices, go through newsrooms, stomp loudly. And what you saw here, I think, was a very strong exercise of power in a very small town. And that is not only chilling to reporters who want to go after local officials, hold them accountable, but I think it's intended to do so in the absence of other information and evidence that hasn't so far come to light.

CHANG: OK. Well, Danielle, to you now. At this point, where do we go from here in Marion?

KAYE: Well, lots of national organizations are speaking out against this. And an attorney in Kansas City is also helping the paper challenge the raid in court. And on top of that, the paper is still planning to publish this Wednesday, even though journalists' personal computers are gone, their cellphones are gone. The computers they use at the office for reporting and editing are gone. But despite all that, they say they're committed to still putting the paper out for the community.

CHANG: That is NPR's Danielle Kaye and David Folkenflik. Thank you to both of you for your reporting.

KAYE: Thank you, Ailsa.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.