by Max McCoy,
Kansas Reflector,
December 10, 2023

It’s been a little over four months since the police raid on the Marion County Record, but new revelations are deepening our understanding of what may come to be regarded as a signal moment in the history of American journalism. The more we know about the newspaper raid, the more alarmed we should be, because the stench just keeps growing.

The story is about freedom of the press, of course.
But it’s also much more. The number of legal guardrails authorities blew through Aug. 11 in their quest to seize computers and terrorize, intentionally or not, the publishers and staff of the Record should be of concern to anyone who cares about democracy. New reporting by KSHB-TV makes it clear that it wasn’t just local authorities who kicked federal and state protections in considering the execution of a search warrant on a newspaper, but that the state’s highest investigative agency, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, knew about the impending raid — and did nothing to stop it.

KSHB obtained texts from former Police Chief Gideon Cody to County Attorney Joel Ensey. In those texts, Cody said he had been in contact with the KBI before the raid and later claimed the KBI was “100 percent” behind him. Other emails obtained previously by KSHB showed a KBI agent was texting Marion police asking if the search warrant on the newspaper had been executed.

Ensey folded like a cheap umbrella in the media storm that followed and revoked the search warrants. Two days after the raid, KBI director Tony Mattivi released a statement in which he said he supported freedom of the press, but that nobody was above the law, including members of the news media.

The KBI has declined to answer questions about how much the agency knew about the raid before it happened, but it seems apparent now they were up to their badges in it. It appears now, however, that the KBI has handed off the investigation to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Recently, the Marion County Record reported CBI agents were in town interviewing those who were associated with the raid, including newspaper staffers and Kari Newell.

In case you’ve forgotten the grubby details that led to the raid, Newell was the restaurant owner seeking a liquor license from the Marion City Council and who had been driving for the past 15 years or so without a license after being busted for drunk driving. It’s understandable that Newell might think her career as a vehicular scofflaw might influence the council’s vote. She was tipped off by her close friend, Cody, the town’s relatively new chief of police, that those busybodies at the newspaper had been checking into her driving record using the Kansas Department of Revenue website, an act that Cody concluded amounted to identity theft and computer crime. That was the basis for the search warrants, signed by magistrate judge Laura Viar, for the newspaper office and the homes of the newspaper publishers and that of a city councilwoman.

During the execution of the warrants, the newspaper staff was placed under arrest and made to stand on the sidewalk in the heat outside while the cops rummaged through files and eventually decided to take away computers and other equipment. Meanwhile, at the home of publisher Eric Meyer, police rifled through papers and equipment while his 98-year-old mother, Joan, blistered the walls with a tirade worthy of a teamster.

Joan would die the next day of a heart attack.

During the raid, Cody kept Newell updated on the execution of the warrants. He also left his body cam on during a phone conversation with Newell, at one point calling her “honey.” He also left the camera on while he made a pit stop at the restroom of a local convenience store. Classy.

The Record published its next regular Wednesday edition as scheduled, on Aug. 16, in defiance of the police raid and despite having its equipment seized a few days before. The paper had help from the Kansas Press Association, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations.

Cody had left his role as a captain with the Kansas City, Missouri, police department under a cloud of scrutiny in April and took the job at Marion, a town of fewer than 2,000 in east central Kansas. In early October, after being suspended by the city council, Cody resigned as Marion police chief.

Viar, the magistrate judge, was the target of a disciplinary complaint from a Topeka resident who was outraged Viar would sign off on the warrant. On Dec. 6, the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct said in a letter it had dismissed the complaint, saying there wasn’t evidence of “incompetence.”

That, thus far, is the condensed story of the raid.

Because of the clear threat to press freedom, intense international interest, and reporters interviewing scores of witnesses and filing mounds of open record requests, the raid has become one of the best-documented local police actions in the history of the state. You could spend hours doom scrolling news accounts or binging videos from the day of the raid. The Marion County Record has become, at least for a time, the biggest little newspaper in the world.

It’s obvious that people here and abroad are deeply concerned about press freedom, and properly so. Journalism has been subjected to economic and political stress that we haven’t seen in this country in half a century. But in all this frenzy of journalists covering other journalists, we may have forgotten that the great newspaper raid has implications not just for the media, but for average citizens as well.

Consider for a moment the way local officals abused their authority and generally disgraced their offices in the performance of their official duties, both at the time of the raid and since. It’s a sordid tale of local revenge politics, the strutting and bragging of small-town cops, the willingness of a prosecutor and a magistrate to go along, and the failure of state officials who damn well knew better to intervene.

Now imagine that this comedy of terrors is unleashed not on the local newspaper, which is the best equipped of all local institutions to fight back, but is directed instead at a friend or neighbor. Imagine these tactics are used against you or your family while you were exercising your normal law-abiding actions guaranteed by the First Amendment. Imagine being raided for expressing your opinion in a letter to the editor, or for going to church (or for not going to church), or for peaceably assembling at a town hall meeting.

We are fortunate that the majority of officials take their responsibilities and their oaths seriously. Every police officer in Kansas swears or affirms to uphold the Constitution, as does every public official and state employee. It is the first, and the most important, promise any public servant will ever make.

The abuses by the tinpot dictators in Marion have been laid bare by a media spotlight fueled by public outrage. But what also worries me are the abuses perpetrated on ordinary citizens across the country who don’t have barrels of ink or digital platforms with unlimited bandwidth. The public outrage over the illegal raid on the Marion County Record was a justifiable response to a jaw-dropping abuse of power.

But most instances of official misconduct don’t take place in broad daylight on a Friday across the street from the county courthouse in a sleepy little Flint Hills town. No, it happens during traffic stops on hostile highways to frightened individuals who don’t have powerful friends to call for help. It happens in filthy alleys and crowded backrooms, in well-kept homes and cozy apartments, in jails and prisons and anywhere else officials use their power to victimize others.

The remarkable thing about the Marion raid is that local authorities were brazen enough to leverage all of the influence they could muster against an entity regarded as irksome. If this is how a local newspaper, an institution working on behalf of the public interest, is now dealt with, then what hope for justice is there for individuals?

What happened in Marion back in August wasn’t just about freedom of the press. It was about freedom for us all.

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate.