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Attacks on a free press are attacks on us all

“In the nearly six hundred constitutions written between 1776 and 1850, the right most frequently asserted – more often than freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly – was freedom of the press.” – Jill Lepore, in her book of essays called The Deadline

Something strange and troubling went on in Kansas earlier this year when a small-town police chief raided the local weekly newspaper, confiscating computers and a reporter’s cell phone. The crackerjack police force also served a search warrant at the home of the paper’s elderly co-owner and made off with her computer.

The video of the home raid shows multiple armed police officers bravely confronting a 98-year-old woman with a walker who is letting forth with a profanity-laced tirade of protest that would make a sailor proud, if Kansas had sailors.

The scene would be funny if not for the knowledge that the woman died the very next day. Her son said the stress of the police action was the cause.

Her son, Eric Meyer, was the target of the raid. He had a long career as a big-city reporter and then a journalism professor at a major college. He returned to his hometown to run the newspaper that his parents worked at for years before buying in the 1990s. Now 70, he co-owned the paper with his widowed mother.

In addition to the normal coverage expected in a small town, Meyer also brought aggressive reporting that could rufflefeathers, including those belonging to the new police chief who took offense when a reporter asked him about rumors that before taking his current position, he had faced criticism and a potential demotion at his former job at a larger police force.

The reporter couldn’t confirm the story so it never ran. But the police chief still bristled about the questions. That may have made him more receptive when a cafe owner claimed the paper had stolen her identity to obtain state records that showed she had lost her driver’s license due to a DUI arrest.

In fact, a source had given a reporter a screen shot of the women’s driving record. The reporter went to the state website to confirm its accuracy and then reported her findings to the police department. The information was potentially newsworthy because the woman was driving without a driver’s license and she was applying for a liquor license, something she wasn’t eligible for because of the DUI infraction.

Again, the paper did not publish a story because it was afraid it was being used as a pawn in a personal battle. The café owner was involved in what was described as a contentious divorce.

None of that stopped the police chief from seeking a search warrant from compliant judge – he skipped the normal process of going through the local prosecutor – and executing it at the newspaper office and the private home.

It was clearly overkill. Even if police thought a crime had been committed, they didn’t need a search warrant to investigate. It wasn’t as though there was suspected meth or illegal guns on premises. Further, state officials subsequently said the newspaper did nothing wrong in accessing the web site, something the chief could have easily discovered for himself.

In some ways this story ends with a little karma. The new police chief did leave his old job under a cloud, a fact revealed when larger newspapers started reporting on the raids. The café owner still doesn’t have a liquor license. And the newspaper’s former circulation of about 4,000 has grown by 50 percent thanks to new subscriptions from well-wishers around the country.

But a woman has died. And it’s impossible to measure other potential scars. For instance, a hard drive on one of the newspaper computers contained the name of the source who originally tipped off a reporter about the police chief’s troubles in his previous job. The chief says that was a coincidence. But if you are the source – or a potential source for future stories – you can’t be blamed for worrying a bit.

The press, whether it’s doing a good job or a bad job, can be annoying. That’s not against the law. A government that has the right to enter your home and walk away with your private belongings is a government that must be darn sure it’s doing things right. Even in the wheatfields of middle America.

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