Kansas authorities must destroy all electronic copies they made of a small newspaper’s files when police raided its office this month, a judge ordered Tuesday, nearly two weeks after computers and cellphones seized in the search were returned.
The Aug. 11 searches of the Marion County Record’s office and the homes of its publisher and a City Council member have been sharply criticized, putting Marion, a central Kansas town of about 1,900 people, at the center of a debate over the press protections offered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Attorney Bernie Rhodes, who represents the newspaper, said a judge ordered authorities to hand over those electronic records and destroy any copies they have of them along with all photographs that officers took during the raids.
The local prosecutor and sheriff agreed investigators shouldn’t keep that evidence, but Rhodes insisted on a court order to document it. It won’t be clear what files were on the drive until Rhodes gets a copy.
Authorities returned the computers and cellphones they took during the raids after the prosecutor decided there was insufficient evidence to justify their seizure. A few days later the newspaper learned from court documents about the thumb drive with an electronic copy of thousands of files taken from its computers. It wasn’t disclosed in the initial search warrant inventory.
It’s not clear what additional steps authorities might take. Neither city officials nor the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which is looking into reporters’ actions, are saying much.
City Council members refused to discuss the raids at their meeting last week, and the mayor didn’t answer text message questions Tuesday about whether the raids will be on the next agenda. A spokeswoman for the KBI said it’s impossible to predict how long that agency’s investigation will take.
Insurance companies for the city and the county have hired lawyers to prepare for possible lawsuits, including one promised by the newspaper’s publisher.
Supporters of the small Kansas newspaper can now order T-shirts emblazoned with the Marion County Record’s defiant headline “SEIZED but not silenced” that led its front page in the first edition after the raids. The plain black shirts feature the headline in block letters across the front along with the date of the raids.
The Kansas Press Association organized the T-shirt sale to show support for the newspaper. Executive Director Emily Bradbury said proceeds from the US$24.49 shirts and US$40.49 hoodies and other items that are supposed to be ready next week will go to the Kansas Newspaper Foundation that supports publications like the Marion County Record across the state.
The raids came after a local restaurant owner accused the newspaper of illegally accessing information about her. A spokesman for the agency that maintains those records has said the newspaper’s online search that a reporter did was likely legal even though the reporter needed personal information about the restaurant owner that a tipster provided to look up her driving record.
Police Chief Gideon Cody didn’t respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday. He said in affidavits used to obtain the search warrants that he had probable cause to believe the newspaper and City Council member Ruth Herbel, whose home was also raided, had violated state laws against identity theft or computer crimes.
The newspaper’s publisher Eric Meyer has said the identity theft allegations simply provided a convenient excuse for the search after his reporters had been digging for background on Cody, who was appointed this summer.
Legal experts believe the raid on the newspaper violated a federal privacy law or a state law shielding journalists from having to identify sources or turn over unpublished material to law enforcement.
Video of the raid on the home of publisher Eric Meyer shows how distraught his 98-year-old mother became as officers searched through their belongings. Meyer said he believes that stress contributed to the death of his mother, Joan Meyer, a day later.