Kansas journalists remain fearful five months after raid of Marion County Record

By Olivia Cohen

Five months after police raided the Marion County Record in Kansas, drawing international media attention, newsrooms across the state are still reeling from the unprecedented seizure of cell phones and computers.

The Aug. 11 raid on the newspaper’s offices was unusual because it involved multiple agencies and included a search of the publisher and editor’s home. Such raids do not happen often and generally do not happen on the scale of the one in Marion, a town of 1,900 people about 150 miles southwest of Kansas City, Missouri. 

“The raid was highly unusual, and that is what made it so shocking when the news broke and chilled newsrooms across the country,” said Lena Shapiro, director of the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Law.

Surveillance video captured agents inside the home of Record editor and publisher Eric Meyer, which he shared with his 98-year-old mother. Joan Meyer, who also worked at the paper, died the next day of cardiac arrest.

“Can you imagine what happens if they’re able to do this and nobody challenges it and nobody hears it?” said Meyer, who delivered the keynote address on Feb. 17 at the Illinois College Press Association conference in Chicago. “We’ve already seen that the bullies don’t stop until they get to a point where it goes over the edge of something.” 

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation is now investigating as well. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation reportedly asked the Colorado Bureau to join the investigation to give an unbiased view. News reports have found that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation knew about the raid before it occurred. 

“I believe the raid has produced a chilling effect on investigative journalism in Kansas,” said Emily Bradbury, executive director for the Kansas Press Association. Until the bureau finishes its report, “we are all doing our jobs while looking over our shoulders.” 

Eric Meyer, editor-in-chief and publisher of the infamous Marion County Record, talks to student journalists at ICPA confrence at LaSalle Ballroom in the Ohio Street DoubleTree hotel on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (Photo by Christalyn Barker for GJR)

The raid involved a beef between the newspaper and a business woman seeking a liquor license from the city. Police Chief Gideon Cody signed off on the raid maintaining that the newspaper’s search of  the Kansas Department of Revenue’s website amounted to identity theft and a computer crime.

But the newspaper and the paper’s attorney contend Cody was trying to find out what the paper had from his past. Cody left his job as a captain of the Kansas City Police Department while under investigation for making insulting comments to a female officer. Cody took the chief’s job in Marion at lower pay. During the August search, officers found documents relating to Cody’s alleged actions on the Kansas City Department. Last September the Marion City Council suspended Cody and he resigned a week later.

Shapiro said the federal Privacy Protection Act makes it illegal for law enforcement officers or government officials to search a newsroom in connection with a criminal investigation and that the law generally requires the police to proceed using a subpoena, rather than a search warrant, when it seeks information from a reporter or news organization, to help prevent the type of raids that took place in Marion. 

“That procedure enables the newspaper to challenge the demand in court before having to comply,” Shapiro said. “While the law contains some narrow exceptions that permit searches in some extraordinary circumstances, none applied in the Marion case.” 

After news broke of the August raid, more than 30 news and press freedom organizations condemned it.

This was “arguably the biggest press freedom story of the year,” said ICPA’s Immediate Past President Chris Kaergard, who is also a professor in the Communication Department at Bradley University. 

Meyer said the outpouring of support was “just amazing.”

Despite the raid, Meyer said they would not hold the publication of their paper, with the headline “Seized, but not silenced.” It has continued to report on the fallout.

“Come hell or high water, the paper is coming out. It took us two all nighters to give that paper out but we did it at least,” Meyer said. “The key is not to give in.” 

Meyer said keeping public officials accountable is why journalists “do journalism.” 

“This is why we do journalism,” Meyer said. “To challenge public officials because when does it stop? It is important to make sure we have a voice.” 

Maddie Marr, a sophomore mass media and public relations major at Illinois State University,  said it was “motivating” to hear Meyer’s story at the conference, which drew college journalists from across the state. “It made me motivated to just keep writing,” Marr said.

ISU senior journalism major Emma Bratt said she appreciated that Meyer spoke to issues that continue to be relevant to journalists. 

Meyer “gave a lot of insight into real-world problems within journalism,” Bratt said, adding that she will work to apply what Meyer taught into her own work. 

Overall, Meyer said to not underestimate the power of local journalism.

“We are the plankton feeding the whales,” Meyer said. 

Olivia Cohen is a Chicago-based journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Chronicle at Columbia College Chicago. She has reported for Bloomberg Law, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Chicago Sun-Times. 

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