Law enforcement continues to mess with the press

“It sure seems like there's a bright orange target painted on the back of every journalist in the United States these days.”

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It’s been nearly three months since the police raid of the Marion County Record newspaper, but the impact continues to reverberate both in Kansas and beyond. New stunning developments have been revealed in Marion, and stories out of Alabama and Illinois indicate this is only the beginning of attacks on the First Amendment by law enforcement.

When I broke the story that the paper had been investigating the police chief at the time of the raid, it seemed like it could mostly be explained as a rogue cop exacting revenge. But now it appears there was widespread complicity by local and state law enforcement.

The Kansas Reflector—the nonprofit news outlet that originally drew national attention to the police raids in early August—painstakingly poured over public records and found that the early story told by state Attorney General Kris Kobach and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) did not line up with reality.

I encourage you to read the entire report here, but here are some bullet points:

  • At first, it seemed as though only the Marion Police Department and Magistrate Judge Laura Viar were involved in executing the search warrants. It turned out to be a coordinated effort between ​​a KBI agent and his supervisor, a sheriff’s detective, the Marion County Attorney, a Department of Revenue staffer and a fire marshal’s investigator. All these players had previous knowledge of the planned raids and either offered no objections or actively helped carry them out.

  • Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey was briefed on the planned raid by Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody on August 8th. But post-raids, he claimed to have reviewed the search warrants and found “there was insufficient evidence to support the raids and that items seized would be returned.”

  • Shortly after the raids, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach told press KBI “was not notified of the searches prior to their taking place.” But emails shows a KBI officer wrote to Cody to let him know his “request for assistance” had been passed to a supervisor two days before the raids. And Cody wrote to a KBI special agent the day after the raids, saying: “I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the KBI’s support. It has been tough being the Chief of Police today.”

Reached for comment Monday, Marion County Record owner and publisher Eric Meyer told The Handbasket he expects the various law enforcement agencies involved obviously hadn’t “managed to read up on most of the law about how to do this,” and expects they’ll “minimize” their roles in the coming days. “I don't know whether they were just going along to get along, or they actually thought there was something going on here,” he said. “None of it rings true.”

Meanwhile in Atmore, Alabama, there was another recent alarming attack on press freedom. Sherry Digmon, the publisher and co-owner of Atmore News and one of her reporters, Don Fletcher, were both arrested last week. The Escambia County district attorney said the two were charged with unlawfully sharing secret grand jury information in a story Fletcher recently published about a Board of Education investigation into misuse of federal Covid relief money. (Digmon is also a member of the board.)

The only problem? It doesn’t appear they actually broke any laws. “While it’s illegal for a grand juror, witness or court officer to disclose grand-jury proceedings, it’s not a crime for a media outlet to publish such leaked material, provided the material was obtained by legal means, legal experts said,” The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote last week. An attorney told Farhi that the case in Atmore was “extraordinary, outrageous and flatly unconstitutional.” 

And Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told the New York Times, “If the Nixon administration couldn’t imprison journalists who printed the Pentagon Papers, the Alabama D.A. can’t imprison journalists for writing stories about the Atmore, Alabama, school board.”

Meanwhile in Calumet City, Illinois, a local newspaper reporter was issued three citations last week for sending too many emails to city officials regarding a story about severe flooding. According to the AP, “[Hank] Sanders reported in an Oct. 20 story that consultants told Calumet City administrators the city’s stormwater infrastructure was in poor condition before flooding wrought by record September rains.”

After continually following up with the city’s mayor and other local officials on behalf of The Daily Southtown, Sanders was sent multiple citations for “interference/hampering of city employees.” 

The paper is owned by the same parent company as the Chicago Tribune, and the paper’s executive editor Mitch Pugh weighed in on the city’s outrageous use of power and how it related to the incidents in both Kansas and Alabama. He acknowledged citations weren’t “the same degree and magnitude” but said, “it seems to be on the same through line of a real lack of understanding of what the First Amendment protects, what a journalist’s job is, what our role is.”

On Monday evening, the Calumet City prosecutor said the city had decided to drop the citations

Eric Meyer of the Marion County Record told me he hadn’t been in touch with the journalists in Alabama, but added, “It sure seems like there's a bright orange target painted on the back of every journalist in the United States these days.” 

He said he would continue fighting on behalf of his paper, and all the other outlets trying to keep the public informed.

“It's not us that were hurt by this—although we were, and still are,” Meyer said. “It's all of democracy that's hurt by this and we have to fight it for the sake of other people, as well as ourselves. We need to…get back to the point where we understand how democracy works in this country. And that there is a place for the Fourth Estate.”

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