SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – The raid on a small weekly newspaper in Kansas by law enforcement shows it could happen to any media outlet, a South Dakota Newspaper Association official says.
The Marion County Record newspaper raid was done by police officers who seized computers, phones and hard drives after a complaint of the paper illegally obtaining information.
The latest news release from the Marion County attorney Joel Ensey says he has reviewed the situation and found that “insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized.” Ensey said all items removed in the raid should be returned.
Freedom watchdog reporters and free press organizations condemned the raid, saying it was a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free press and federal law. KELOLAND News reached out to South Dakota newspapers to hear their perspective on how the raid could affect the public perception of the media.
“This was an example where this sort of thing can happen to any media outlet, regardless of size,” South Dakota Newspaper Association Executive Director David Bordewyk said. “It’s not just the Washington Post or the New York Times that has to worry about this. It’s the local, hometown, weekly newspaper that also has to worry about this when they’re doing good, local, investigative journalism.”
The raid on the Kansas newspaper came after restaurant owner Kari Newell claimed the newspaper reported on her lack of a driver’s license and a DUI conviction. CBS News spoke with Eric Meyer, the editor and publisher of the Record, who said they received a tip about Newell’s previous infractions and verified it through public online records.
“We receive news tips all the time. Some are easily identified as not true, and others need to be run down to be verified or debunked,” Mark Watson, the editor for the Black Hills Pioneer, said in an email. “We too use public records searches to gain information for possible stories. Does that mean we should have our computers, router, phones, and more seized? No.”
The Record chose not to run the story because they weren’t sure if the source had obtained the information legally. However, the newspaper did later report on Newell’s driving violation after she herself confirmed in a city council meeting that she had a DUI conviction and continued to drive after her license was suspended. Newell is accusing the Record of invading her privacy and illegally accessing information.
“If someone is doing something illegal and someone broke the law, sure no one is above the law, I believe that, but I don’t see any evidence that the paper was breaking the law in any way,” said Garrick Moritz, the editor and publisher of the Garretson Gazette.
Laura Viar, a Marion County magistrate judge, issued the search warrant for all seven officers to seize the Record’s devices. However, a federal law from 1981 provides protections against searching and seizing materials for journalists and requires law enforcement to subpoena materials– not just issue a search warrant.
“I’m curious how Judge Laura Viar can justify signing the search warrant authorizing an illegal raid,” Letitia Lister, the publisher and owner of the Black Hills Pioneer, said in an email. “If she doesn’t understand the protections against search & seizure of journalist materials, she should have read up on it before making a decision. The truth will come out. It always does. It’s just hard to believe this happened in America.”
Moritz said the violation of privacy and breach of constitutional rights speaks to a larger issue of the distrust in media and has diminished the importance of community journalism. He hopes the officers in Marion County face consequences for their actions and thinks government officials, law enforcement and even journalists should be held to a higher standard of the law.
“Freedom of the press is supposed to be one of the most important, fundamental pieces of American governance,” Moritz said. “This just smacks of an authoritarian regime or something you would see in a fascist, totalitarian country.”
Moritz just finished his term as president of the South Dakota Newspaper Association and is also a member of the International Society of Weekly News Editors, who he says have been monitoring the response to the raid.
For Bordewyk, he hopes that if the public takes anything away from the national attention the raid has received, it’s that the raid was unconstitutional and that the Record reporters were doing their job by investigating a news tip and making the public aware of the truth.
“I’m hopeful that there’s maybe some lessons in here just because it’s been such wide-spread publicity of this issue that the public gets a better understanding of why we need that free press to be a watchdog on government,” Bordewyk said.