The entire five-member police department of a small town in Kansas raided the office of a local newspaper and the home of its publisher, seizing computers, cell phones and other reporting materials and effectively shutting down publication.
The weekly newspaper’s 98-year-old co-owner – apparently overwhelmed by the incident – collapsed and died the following day, according to the Marion County Record.
Publisher Eric Meyer said the Marion Police Department’s raid on 11 August took “everything we have.”
The incident is likely to cast a “chilling effect” on the newspaper’s abilities to publish and for members of the public to speak with its reporters, he told the Kansas Reflector.
“Based on the reporting so far, the police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency,” according to a statement from Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation.
“Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves,” he added.
The raid followed a series of stories about a restaurant owner who kicked reporters out of a meeting with Republican US Rep Jake LaTurner. A source had contacted the newspaper about the restaurant owner’s drunken driving record, and reporters sought to verify the information through government records. Mr Meyer ultimately decided against publishing anything.
But the restaurant owner, KarI Newell, falsely claimed during a city council meeting that the newspaper had illegally obtained sensitive documents about her, which prompted the newspaper to publish a story that set the record straight.
The newspaper was also actively investigating Gideon Cody, Marion’s chief of police, following allegations that he had retired from a previous job to avoid punishment over accusations of sexual misconduct.
The Independent has requested comment from Mr Cody and Marion police.
A warrant for the raid – performed by the entire police department and sheriff’s deputies – was signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar.
The two-page warrant stated that officers were allowed to seize phones, software, items that contained passwords, and all correspondence and documents “pertaining to Kari Newell.”
Chief Cody also reportedly dislocated one reporter’s finger after snatching her phone from her hand during the raid.
Officers also reportedly photographed personal financial statements and seized personal items – including a smart speaker used by the paper’s 98-year-old co-owner Joan Meyer to ask for assistance.
“These are Hitler tactics and something has to be done,” Ms Meyer said.
The following day, the Marion County Record reported that she was “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief” following the raid of the newspaper’s office and her home.
“Joan Meyer, otherwise in good health for her age, collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home,” the newspaper reported. “She had not been able to eat after police showed up at the door of her home Friday with a search warrant in hand. Neither was she able to sleep Friday night.”
Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said that the incident is unprecedented in the state.
“An attack on a newspaper office through an illegal search is not just an infringement on the rights of journalists but an assault on the very foundation of democracy and the public’s right to know,” she said in a statement. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”
The Radio Television Digital News Association also is demanding an explanation from police.
Free expression advocacy organisation PEN America said such “egregious attempts to interfere with news reporting cannot go unchecked in a democracy,” and that the seizure of the newspaper’s equipment “almost certainly violates federal law & puts the paper’s ability to publish the news in jeopardy.”
In The Record’s own reporting of the incident, Mr Meyer condemned what he called police “Gestapo tactics” used to crush dissent.
“We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law,” he added.
The Record is expected to file a federal lawsuit.
The Press Freedom Tracker has recorded at least 55 incidents targeting journalists’ First Amendment-protected activities within the last year.
Earlier this year, officials in Oklahoma were caught on tape fantasizing about killing journalists. Two journalists in North Carolina were recently found guilty of trespassing for reporting on the evictions of homeless people during a law enforcement sweep in Asheville.
The latest incident in Kansas appears to be “the latest example of American law enforcement officers treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes,” Mr Stern said.
“The anti-press rhetoric that’s become so pervasive in this country has become more than just talk and is creating a dangerous environment for journalists trying to do their jobs,” he added.