Will Outrage Prompt Congress to Pass the PRESS Act?
National outrage over a rural Kansas police department’s ransacking of a newspaper, the Marion County Record, will almost certainly result in a massive legal reckoning. But will its larger implications prompt Congress to move to protect journalists from similar interference by federal authorities?
Here’s the background: On Friday, the Marion police department launched simultaneous raids on the homes of a reporter, an 80-year-old councilwoman, and The Record’s 98-year-old co-owner, Joan Meyer, mother of editor Eric Meyer. According to the account in The Record, the trauma left Joan Meyer “stressed beyond her limits,” prompting her to quit eating, and to collapse and die the next day.
And for what? The Marion police launched this extreme execution of a search warrant to track down an informant who revealed a letter from a state agency about a local restauranteur’s DUI to a Record reporter. The newspaper ultimately chose not to print this story out of concern that the informant acted maliciously in revealing the restauranteur’s personal information.
“The police confiscation of virtually all of the equipment of a 4,000-circulation newspaper will be one for the textbooks in both law and journalism schools,” said Rick Boucher, Senior Policy Advisor to Protect The 1st and a former U.S. Representative from Virginia and Member of the House Judiciary Committee. “The seizure of a newsroom is an outrage that demonstrates that absent proper legal restraints, and sometimes even with them, some in officialdom will use a petty excuse to pry open a reporter’s notebooks.
“These events triggered a raid in which the police seized computers, servers and snatched cellphones,” he said. “The Record reports that one reporter’s hand was reinjured by having her phone forcibly jerked out of her hand. The police took so much equipment that the staff is scrambling to find a way to publish the newspaper’s next edition.
“The police did not just raid The Record, they potentially put it out of print. And as a result, the police – and the politicians they work for – now have ready access to vast amounts of confidential interviews, official contacts, and other investigations that any local paper customarily conducts into city hall.”
Boucher noted that the raid is likely a violation of the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980, opening the door to significant liability for the town.
“The larger takeaway from this event is the appetite that some in authority have to bully a sometimes nettlesome press,” Boucher said.
“Kansas, like most states, has a shield law that protects journalists and their sources,” he said. “Rather than taking the extreme step of raiding the newspaper’s office and seizing all of its records, if the police had probable cause to believe that stolen property was in the possession of the paper, a subpoena for the record in question would have put in motion a court proceeding at which a judge could have decided whether the Kansas shield law applies. It will be instructive to read the probable cause affidavit behind the search warrant that was issued.”
Boucher noted that the federal government, with its huge apparatus of prosecutors and surveillance, is restrained by no such law. While lawmakers and journalists in Kansas sort out how to avoid events like this, Congress should take this opportunity to pass the Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying (PRESS) Act to give journalists at least some protection from official intimidation.
The PRESS Act passed the U.S. House unanimously last year and was recently favorably reported again without dissent by the House Judiciary Committee.
“The House should schedule a full vote when it returns in September,” Boucher said. “Action in the Senate should swiftly follow.”