April 22, 2024

Press Rights Essential To An Informed Citizenry

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It’s a more convoluted story than was first reported, but one that still holds an important lesson for America’s free press and the citizens who rely on it for news.

August 12, police raided the offices of the Marion County Record in Marion, KS, seizing computers, phones, and records. Their actions have captured national attention. More than 36 news organizations, including the National Newspaper Association, expressed outrage at the action and supported the small Kansas newspaper.

The cast

Eric Meyer is the Marion County Record’s editor, publisher, and co-owner. His newspaper was pursuing an anonymous lead on a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell, who was seeking a liquor license for her business. 

The Record had received a screenshot of Newell’s 2008 conviction on a drunk driving charge. She had lost her license but was supposedly continuing to drive.

Phyllis Zorn is a reporter for the Record. In researching the tip, she admits to accessing the Kansas Department of Revenue’s records to download the conviction. To do that required providing the name of the person involved, her birthdate, and a driver’s license number. All three had been provided by her source. “It would have been irresponsible to just take the word of someone out there,” Zorn said in an interview.

Those records are private under Kansas law, and accessing them is a crime. Police Chief Gideon Cody used the violation as grounds for a search warrant from the local court.

Cody may have had other reasons. The Record had learned that the former Kansas City Police Department officer had retired after claims of inappropriate behavior. They questioned him about it but were unable to confirm the allegations.

It was later revealed that Ryan Newell, the estranged husband of Kari Newell, was the source of the screenshot of her driving record and her lack of a current license. He also gave it to a friend, who gave it to Ruth Herbel, a member of the Marion City Council who opposed granting Kari Newell a liquor license. 

Because the information it received through the tip on Kari Newell’s driving record had been obtained illegally, Publisher Meyer chose not to run the story. However, he told The Washington Post he did not think reporter Zorn had committed a crime in trying to verify the information. He said that “the record was accessed for research purposes and that there was no intent to use it maliciously. ‘There is no criminal intent.”

Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, Joan, who was still active in the newspaper and a co-owner, died the day after her home was searched by police.

How it played out

In seeking a warrant to raid the offices of the Marion County Record and the homes of its staff, Chief Cody told the judge that its reporter had accessed the Department of Revenue’s records by “either impersonating the victim or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought.”

Meyer told the Post that while his reporter may have crossed the line in accessing the site, “even if it was illegal for us to do that, the police response was like bringing the SWAT team out for jaywalking.”

Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey has now said there was “insufficient evidence” to connect the homes of the Record’s staff and offices with the alleged crimes committed. He also called for returning everything taken.

“While the withdrawal of the search warrant and the return of equipment to the Marion County Record is a welcome development, we remain deeply concerned that a Kansas judge issued a search warrant authorizing this search even though the federal law clearly requires authorities to use subpoenas rather than search warrants if they seek to access records of a news organization in the course of an investigation,” Gil Klein, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, said.

Further, as journalists pursue leads, the information they receive, their notes, and their sources are protected by the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980.

A danger to an informed citizenry

Through our years as a community journalist, we have learned time and again that Mark Twain had it right when he said: “It ain’t what people know it’s that they know so much that ain’t so.” 

We’ve been told to follow up on tips of wrongdoing and publish the truth. We investigate their suspicions when they involve public officials. Almost always, the tip had no basis in fact.

What if every time a journalist followed up on a lead about a public official’s supposed wrongdoing, he and his newspaper were subject to a raid? Such tactics, backed up by the courts, would stifle their research and ensure criminals in public office would get away with their crimes.

Today, we live in a dangerous and challenging environment for reporters, even in small-town America. Many local journalists, even in small towns in western Minnesota, have had their lives threatened.

“It may look at first blush like this is just an isolated incident in Kansas. But this really has a much broader effect on press freedom and on the news media,’ Shannon Jankowski, journalism and disinformation program director at PEN America, an advocacy group rallying around the Record. “And I think everyone, whether they’re in Minnesota or Kansas or anywhere, should be concerned about what this means for the news media’s ability to do their job and keep the public informed.”

What lessons have other law enforcement agencies and courts learned afrom the raid on the Record? Have they learned of the quick outrage that can be sparked, leading to national scrutiny? Or will they see they can get away with it and intimidate their local newspapers into ignoring corruption? 

We are outnumbered by people with considerable authority to suppress a free press for personal gain, political power, or to escape a light being shone on their actions.

Pushing the boundaries of the law, or even violating them, becomes more common as the presence and strength of the press weaken.

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