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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Saying goodbye and championing freedom of the press

David Colburn
Posted 8/23/23

Longtime Marion County Record editor and co-publisher Joan Meyer was laid to rest last Saturday, a week after a police raid on her home that contributed to her death at age 98, an unprecedented …

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Saying goodbye and championing freedom of the press


Longtime Marion County Record editor and co-publisher Joan Meyer was laid to rest last Saturday, a week after a police raid on her home that contributed to her death at age 98, an unprecedented illegal act that sparked national and international outrage.
As I noted last week, I got my start in journalism thanks to Joan and her husband. Hall of fame editor Bill Meyer and their son, now solo publisher Eric, hired and mentored me as the paper’s news editor back in 2014. With family ties between the Colburns and the Meyers reaching back to the 1930s, there was little question that I would make the long drive to Kansas to pay my respects to the family and demonstrate my support for the newspaper.
The extensive coverage caused me to overestimate the anticipated size of the crowd that made its way into the Valley Methodist Church for the funeral. The journalism community had already paid its respects the way they do best, in words, throughout the week, and aside from representatives of the state press association and a handful of others, the only press attending the service were a couple of Wichita television stations and a few journalists there to cover the proceedings.
The church was largely full, but not overly so, which in retrospect isn’t surprising. At 98, Joan had outlived almost all of the friends and journalism peers that might otherwise have attended. Current and former Record staff were well represented, as were members of the business community, younger friends and church members.
Two aspects of the affair were bizarrely ironic. For one, the church sits directly across the street from the restaurant operated by Kari Newell, whose complaint about identity theft related to her drunk driving record and suspended license led to the search warrant that authorized the raid. At one point, according to one observer, Newell was out on the front porch watching people arrive before retreating inside. One can only wonder what was going through her mind.
But an even more disconcerting development would follow the service, when the funeral procession headed to Marion Cemetery was led by the same police force that contributed to her untimely death. Such an escort is standard procedure in Marion, but surely unwelcome by mourners on Saturday.
Several days earlier, the county attorney canceled the search warrant and ordered the return all of the seized computers, routers, and cell phones to the Record, citing “insufficient evidence” to support the extent of the raid, an indirect admission that there was no need to have raided Joan Meyer’s home in the first place.
The lack of justification became even more apparent after the release of the probable cause affidavit, inexplicably not filed with the court until three days after the search warrant was granted by Judge Laura Viar, herself a two-time drunk driving convict. Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, who was under investigation by the Record regarding the circumstances under which he left the Kansas City Police Department and took the job in Marion for about half the salary he’d been making, specifically noted that reporter Phyllis Zorn was the one who he alleged illegally accessed Newell’s driving record through the Kansas Department of Revenue website. With a specific individual in mind, their only possible justified seizure would appear to be Zorn’s work computer and possibly her cell phone. And, notably, Cody did not ask for permission to search Zorn’s home, where she might have had a computer that was used to access the record, but did ask to raid Meyer’s home, where Zorn would have had no reason to be. And the search could have been narrowed more if Cody had simply obtained the IP address of the computer that accessed the DOR website. There was absolutely no reason to seize all of the Record’s computers and server, no reason to seize other staff members’ cell phones, and certainly no reason to invade Joan Meyer’s home, other than perhaps to deliberately interfere with the paper’s ability to publish.
If that was the intent, it failed miserably. Working with a system cobbled together from antiquated computers, the Record staff worked through the night that Tuesday to 5 a.m. Wednesday to meet their normal Wednesday publication time. The banner headline on the front page proudly proclaimed “Seized … but not silenced.” I’ve never been prouder to be associated with that newspaper than the moment I saw that headline.
The investigation of the incident has been taken over by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which still could decide some sort of crime was committed and recommend charges against the paper. But they will have to do so without the benefit of any of the items seized in the raid, which by agreement of all parties are off limits for the investigation.
So why should the general public, and you, our readers, be concerned over an illegal police raid on a little Kansas weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 4,000 (although that circulation has now doubled with the number of new subscribers to the Record following the raid)?
Because the press is the only profession enshrined by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, that’s why. Freedom of the press stands right alongside the right to bear arms, although the Second Amendment seems to get more fervent support these days than the First.
That freedom of the press in America is under attack is undeniable. Former president Donald Trump has declared the press the “enemy of the people” on multiple occasions, ignoring his oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.
The world press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States well down the list at 45th, behind such countries as the Czech Republic, Latvia, Samoa, Croatia, and the Dominican Republic. The ranking reflects the industry’s budget constraints, a decline in audience trust and a rise in hostility toward mainstream media, and a worrisome trend of journalists being harassed, intimidated and assaulted while doing their jobs. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports assaults on journalists jumped from 13 in 2018 to 145 in 2021.
In 2018, a gunman walked into the offices of The Capital Gazette in Baltimore and murdered five staff members over a dispute with the newspaper. In 2023, a Nevada county administrator was charged with the 2022 stabbing murder of Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German, who wrote reports critical of him. And the issue hits close to home, where journalists were threatened and intimidated by Minnesota police during the George Floyd and Daunte Wright protests.
The Founding Fathers recognized the value of a free press for society. Its roles in informing the citizenry, checking government power, championing transparency and accountability, guarding individual liberties, and catalyzing social change makes it an indispensable defender of democracy. Protecting and nurturing a free press is not only a matter of upholding democratic principles but also a commitment to the advancement of society as a whole.
When a small newspaper is illegally raided by police and its ability to publish is threatened, it’s a threat to our way of life. Such threats are intolerable and should be met with outrage, not only by the press but also by you. Anything less is to give away a piece of the freedoms we as Americans hold so dear.