U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

After Kansas: Putting newsroom raids in context

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Published On
August 31, 2023

Vertical bar chart showing search and seizure incidents in the Tracker from 2017 to today

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The events took less than a week to unfold. On Friday, Aug. 11, the entire police force of Marion County, Kansas, was in the entire news operation of the Marion County Record, hauling away computers and wrestling cellphones from the hands of reporters and doing the same thing at the home of Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s publisher and editor, where he lived with Joan Meyer, his mother and co-owner of the weekly. Joan Meyer died the following day, her son said, “of shock and grief.”

The raids, ostensibly part of an investigation into alleged unlawful use of a computer and identity theft, were swiftly condemned by press freedom advocates near and far. Within hours, Freedom of the Press Foundation, which operates the Tracker, released a statement: “Based on the reporting so far, the police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency,” Director of Advocacy Seth Stern wrote.

By Wednesday, the county’s top prosecutor had withdrawn the search warrants, citing insufficient evidence to justify the searches, and requested the seized devices — nine computers, three cellphones and a few hard drives — be returned to the journalists. Joan Meyer’s funeral was Saturday.

Max McCoy for Kansas Reflector

Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer during an Aug. 16, 2023, news conference at the newspaper office.

— Max McCoy for Kansas Reflector

When the equipment was en route back to the newsroom, Record attorney Bernie Rhodes told our Senior Reporter Stephanie Sugars that it was “a promising first step,” but did nothing to cure the damages done by the original illegal search. “We have a long way to go to establish that justice is served,” Rhodes said.

This is also a good time to acknowledge the work of the local Kansas and Midwest journalists whose reporting was instrumental in giving us a window to the people and events as they unfolded. The Kansas Reflector worked to make sure we all got the story right (and were gracious in their email responses) and KSHB-TV often led the way in news (reporter Jessica McMaster’s feed on X, formerly known as Twitter, was instrumental in real-time updates).

It’s also a good time to put the Marion County Record raids in context with other press freedom violations across the U.S.; more than 90 incidents are captured in the Tracker’s Equipment Search and Seizure category. Here’s what else we’ve documented through the years:

While in Marion, entire computer towers were taken from the newsroom, most often it’s journalists’ handheld devices, like phones and cameras, that are seized by law enforcement. Cellphones, such as the three taken from Record journalists, are included in 49 search and seizures in the Tracker.

Searches and seized equipment of journalists across the U.S., by state

One of those search warrants was executed this May in Florida, when independent journalist Tim Burke awoke to the sound of FBI agents banging on the door of his Tampa home. By the time the raid ended approximately 10 hours later, agents had seized virtually all of the electronics in his newsroom.

In an interview this month, Burke told us that the seizure of his electronics has made it impossible for him to continue his journalistic work.

“It’s very difficult for me to do most of the things that I do as a journalist without my contacts that are on my phone or without the video editing softwares that are on my computer,” Burke said. “I just want to get back to doing this thing that I’ve dedicated my life to.”

In the news

Tracking and Defending Press Freedom in the U.S.” Our director of advocacy and I join “News in Context” podcast host and journalism professor Gina Baleria to discuss the Record search warrants and the importance of a free press for us all. Give it a listen.

Media giants raise First Amendment concerns over raid on Kansas paper: Axios uses the Tracker database to put events in Kansas in larger perspective. “Zoom out: Tensions between local newsrooms and local law enforcement officials have escalated in recent years, per data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. In 2020, dozens of journalists across the country were arrested and targeted by police during nationwide George Floyd protests.” (We documented 133 arrests of journalists during BLM protests that year)

Upcoming event: Those in the New York area are invited to a reception, film screening and panel discussion on the report, “Covering Democracy: Protests, Police and the Press” on Sept. 26 in Manhattan. Hear how Tracker data informed recommendations, prepared by Joel Simon and the Knight Institute, to protect press freedom and the right to record at future protests.