Elderly newspaper owner dies following police search that raised First Amendment issues

August 14, 2023

Joan Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of Kansas newspaper the Marion County Record, died on Saturday with stress being blamed as the cause of death.

Meyer’s death follows a raid on the newspaper’s offices after a search warrant was authorized by a Marion County District Court judge who agreed with police that there was probable cause to believe there was identity theft involved. 

According to the newspaper, Meyer was “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after illegal police raids on her home and the Marion County Record newspaper office Friday, 98-year-old newspaper co-owner Joan Meyer, otherwise in good health for her age, collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home.”

The Record further noted that Meyer had been unable to eat or sleep after police showed up at the door of her home on Friday with a search warrant and took away her computer and router.

Some First Amendment attorneys have asserted that Friday’s police raid violated the law.

Such newsroom searches are “rare,” according to attorney Lynn Oberlander, because they’re “illegal.”

The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 broadly prohibits police from searching for or seizing information from reporters. Oberlander conceded that exceptions to the law do occur but are “very limited” to instances such as when the journalists themselves are suspected of being involved in a crime. 

Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody cited this exception to justify his department’s raid of the local newspaper offices, though he also said he “cannot [release] details on a criminal investigation.”

“I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated,” the police chief added.

The warrant allowed police to confiscate documents related to the “identity theft” of Marion restaurant owner Kari Newell who had kicked newspaper staff out of a public forum.

According to the newspaper’s co-ower and publisher Eric Meyer, Joan’s son, a confidential source contacted the newspaper and provided evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license.

While Eric Meyer has insisted that no one’s identity was stolen amid its investigation, Jeff Kosseff, a law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy specializing in the First Amendment, added that reasoning behind obtaining a search warrant on a newspaper ought to be “a whole lot more for this to be a correct decision.” 

The Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also condemned the police search and demanded that all seized materials be returned to the newspaper’s offices, contending that there has been “no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search—particularly when other investigative steps may have been available.”

The letter was signed by more than 30 major news outlets, including Reuters, the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

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