George Pyle: Raid of Kansas newspaper shows how police overreach can backfire

“These are Hitler tactics, and something has to be done.”

That’s what Joan Meyer said to a reporter for The Wichita Eagle after her home and the offices of the community Kansas newspaper she owned, The Marion County Record, were raided by local police in what appears to have been an illegal search designed to intimidate the newspaper into silence.

It didn’t work.

If anything, what could have been a strictly local scandal is now on news sites around the county and across the pond.

Pretty cool how that works.

A small version of this played out recently in Beaver County, Utah. There, the county has agreed to pay $52,000 — plus attorney fees — to a few animal rights activists who were threatened with arrest and otherwise intimidated by the local sheriff who didn’t like them publicly expressing their views on how the community’s largest employer, Smithfield Foods, treats the pigs it turns into millions of canned hams and bacon rashers.

“Hitler tactics” may be a little strong for what happened in Beaver. But, clearly, this is something that is going to happen a lot more often in Donald Trump’s America. The legal system is going to be perverted in attempts to silence views not shared by some wearing a badge.

So far, at least in these two cases, the police overreach has backfired.

But, as Joan Meyer herself expected, the voice and conscience of her community didn’t live to see that something was, indeed, done.

Reported the Eagle’s Carrie Rengers, “Half a day later, she died.”

“What bothers me most,” said Eric Meyer, Joan’s son and publisher of the Record, “is a 98-year-old woman spent her last day on earth … feeling under attack by bullies who invaded her house.”

I didn’t know Joan or Eric. But I knew Bill Meyer. He was Eric’s father and Joan’s husband and the leader of his newspaper and of his whole community from the day he showed up in Marion as a fresh journalism graduate in 1948 until he died in 2006.

As a young newspaper reporter and editor coming up in Kansas, I looked up to Bill Meyer and a handful of other country editors who had the guts and commitment to run a hometown newspaper.

Bill was a bit of a gruff, Burl Ives type. He had the temerity to suggest that a 1991 national best-seller about the beauty of his part of the country, William Least Heat-Moon’s “PrairyErth,” would have benefitted significantly from the heavy hand of an editor.

The Meyer family kept the Record out of the clutches of any of those heartless conglomerations that are buying up beleaguered publications, stripping them for parts, shutting them down, leaving still more communities to wither away in another news desert.

The delicious part of all this is that the raid was apparently in response to a story the Record hadn’t wanted to publish.

Reporters were looking into a tip that a local restaurant owner who was seeking a liquor license had been arrested for driving under the influence but continued to drive without a license. The newspaper, using public records, confirmed the information but had held off on the story because editors thought the source of the tip was smelly, apparently part of a nasty divorce.

Only after the restaurateur went public with false accusations of illegal searches of her record by the newspaper did a story run.

And now, because the local cops seized computers, servers, phones and papers in a snipe hunt for evidence that the Record was somehow engaged in “identity theft,” the whole world knows.

As it knows that the magistrate who signed the search warrant also has a history of drunken driving. And that the newspaper was looking into allegations that the town’s new police chief had left his last job after being accused of, The Kansas City Star reports, “allegedly making insulting and sexist comments to a female officer.”

The local prosecutor quickly determined that the search warrant wasn’t justified and told the police to not only give back everything they’d grabbed but also to verify that the computers and phones hadn’t been searched for the identities of any of the newspaper’s confidential sources. The state police are investigating. The White House took notice. The national press, quite rightly, is not going to let this story go.

This is going to cost Marion County — population 11,832 — a lot more than $52,000.

So, perhaps, government officials tempted to violate the First Amendment will hold off rather than shine a spotlight on information they hoped would remain unknown.

You’re welcome.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, says that if you want to see how this story plays out, the best way would be to subscribe to The Marion County Record.