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Police raid of a Kansas newsroom raises alarms about violations of press freedom

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Police officers in a small town in Kansas raided a local newspaper and its publisher's home on Friday. They seized computers. They seized cell phones and also reporting materials. Police claim it was linked to identity theft of a local resident, but First Amendment experts say it seems to violate federal law protecting journalists, among other things. NPR's Danielle Kaye is reporting on this story. Good morning.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly happened in Marion, Kan.?

KAYE: Right. So the local paper that was targeted in this raid is called the Marion County Record. It's a weekly publication with five full time staffers. The paper covers local issues in a small Kansas city with about 2,000 residents. And without getting too much in the weeds, a local business owner in Marion objected to information this newspaper got a hold of about her background. And I want to note here the paper didn't end up even publishing those records. This raid happened after the information had already come out not by them but by somebody else.

INSKEEP: OK, so they got a tip about somebody. They were looking into it to decide if it was even relevant to anything and didn't find it so. So why is it alarming that the police would then raid them?

KAYE: Yeah. Well, it really raises questions about silencing journalists who are just doing their job. That's what experts are concerned about here. Essentially, these journalists in Kansas were doing what journalists do all around the country, verifying tips they get from sources and deciding whether to publish the information. And there's one federal protection that's really important here. It's called the Privacy Protection Act of 1980. This law prohibits law enforcement officials from searching for or seizing information from reporters in most cases. And there are some exceptions, like if the journalists themselves are suspected to be involved in the crime at hand. But media lawyers say even that exception doesn't apply in this case because the alleged crime is connected to news gathering, and that's always protected.

INSKEEP: Well, then how does the police department justify raiding the newspaper?

KAYE: So the Marion police chief justified the raid to me in a statement. He cited an exception to federal press freedom protections that he says made it legal for his department to carry out the raid. But several media lawyers told me his legal argument just doesn't hold up. But here's where things get tricky. The search warrant says authorities are investigating the newspaper for suspected identity theft of a local restaurant owner. And just to clarify, they hadn't stolen her identity. They were just looking at an allegation about her driving record. Eric Meyer, the paper's publisher, says the paper then verified that information using a state record database. But he says they had concerns about the motive for the allegations. So they decided not to publish the records. They just alerted local police. So from his perspective, the paper never tried to steal anyone's identity.

INSKEEP: Well, yeah. I mean, if he's telling the truth, then it's not just a matter of press freedom. Somebody lied in order to produce a search warrant to grab all this stuff. Somebody lied in Kansas if this guy's story is true. What are the implications for newsrooms nationwide?

KAYE: There are a lot of implications. I mean, raids of newsrooms are actually very uncommon in the U.S. That's because of all the legal protections in place that protect journalists from abuse of power by local authorities. And press experts and advocates are saying this raid could set a harmful precedent for newsrooms around the country if it's not challenged in court.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, can this paper keep publishing?

KAYE: Well, Meyer, the publisher, says he's still planning to publish the paper this Wednesday. And he says he's working with an attorney to challenge the raid in federal court.

INSKEEP: NPR's Danielle Kaye, thanks for the update.

KAYE: Thanks so much, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELBM'S "BIRKACH") 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.