Police in the Kansas town where Joan Meyer had lived for almost a century had just raided her home and her newspaper – seizing electronics and reporting materials – during what she understood to be a leak investigation when another media outlet called her for comment.
“These are Hitler tactics, and something has to be done,” Meyer, a co-owner of the Marion County Record, told the Wichita Eagle on Friday, invoking the fascist dictator as her colleagues contemplated legal strategies to recover their confiscated items and hold authorities accountable for what many contend was an illicit raid.
Less than a full day later, on Saturday, after hours of being unable to eat or sleep and of being “stressed beyond her limits”, the 98-year-old Meyer dropped dead in her home, according to the Record’s reporting.
Meyer’s sudden death has since ignited an outcry from news media advocates who condemned the police raid as something straight out of the authoritarian playbook. Critics are calling the move an egregious trampling of free press protections enshrined in the constitution’s first amendment.
The community around Meyer, who spent most of her life “in about a six-block radius”, has since been mourning, her moving obituary in the Wichita Eagle said Monday.
Her run in the increasingly tenuous local newspaper industry began with an interest in reading and spelling as well as a knack for delivering quotable lines while growing up in Marion, a county of about 12,000 people approximately 50 miles north of Wichita. As the Eagle told it, Joan married a man named Bill Meyer who began working at the local paper in 1948 as an associate editor. He successfully insisted that the title return to the Marion County Record name which it had when it was founded in 1870.
Sometime in the 1960s, Joan herself gained employment at the Marion County Record, compiling and editing news of “who ate dinner with whom” that was sent to her by a couple dozen correspondents, the Eagle recounted. She also copy-edited and began writing a column on the history of the community while Bill was promoted to top editor.
“She was an encyclopedia of knowledge,” her son Eric Meyer – who is now the Record’s publisher – told the Eagle. “She was sort of the living historical record of the Marion area.”
The Record’s continued existence as a family-owned newspaper came under threat when Bill Meyer retired in 1998. The local estate which owned the newspaper considered selling the tile to a corporation. But instead, Bill, his wife Joan (pronounced Jo-ann) and their son bought the weekly which publishes on Wednesdays.
Joan’s work with the 153-year-old Record helped her maintain a sense of purpose after her husband died in 2006 and much of the rest of her family lived out of state, the Eagle reported.
She constantly listened to a police scanner in her house for possible stories. That habit reportedly became exceptionally useful when a new cell tower atop a local grain elevator blocked the scanner signal in the newsroom.
A medical treatment which caused her vision problems last year forced her to scale back her work at the Record, the Eagle noted. But Joan would still have her son read her potential entries for the newspaper’s column so that she could approve them for publication.
And then came her last order of business for her beloved Record. The staff received a confidential tip that a local restaurant proprietor, Kari Newell, had been convicted of drunk driving yet continued using her car without a license.
The newspaper did not publish anything related to the information because its staff reportedly suspected the source of the tip was relaying information from Newell’s husband during their divorce. Still, Newell received notification from the police that the information was going around.
Later, at a public local city council meeting, she accused the newspaper of illegally obtaining and disseminating sensitive documents, the contents of which she did not dispute.
Newell had police kick out Record representatives from an open forum held by a US congressman at a coffee shop which she operates. One of the Record’s responses in recent days was to publish a story setting the record straight about the tip it had received from Newell.
By Friday, police had obtained a search warrant that alleged identity theft as well as unlawful use of a computer in the matter involving Newell. Marion’s entire five-officer police department – along with two local sheriff’s deputies – then went to the Record’s offices as well as the homes of its reporters and publishers.
They seized computers, cellphones and reporting materials, at least some of which the Record was counting on to put out its next edition. The Record reported that Meyer’s house was left a mess after the hours-long search, which so disturbed her that she was unable to eat or sleep.
“Where are all the good people who are supposed to stop this from happening?” Joan Meyer said in her final hours, her son told the Eagle.
Eric Meyer tried to soothe his mother by telling her that something good would come from the raid – that the cops would be taught, through litigation if necessary, that they can’t operate like that without consequence, according to what he told the Eagle.
“Yeah, but I won’t be alive by the time that happens,” Eric Meyer recalled his mother saying, the Eagle reported.
Her words were a prophecy, Eric bitterly noted. His mother died shortly after he woke her up to see if she had it in her to eat something on Saturday afternoon.
He insists that she was in good health and does not believe she would have died over the weekend without the police’s raiding her home and newspaper.
Police have acknowledged that there is a federal law which provides protections against searching and seizing materials from journalists. The law mandates that authorities instead subpoena such materials.
But police have maintained those protections don’t apply if journalists are “suspects in the offense that is the subject” of an investigation. Separately, Newell has also cited the same exception, saying someone illegally impersonated her to gain information about her arrest and therefore violated her privacy.
As of Monday, police and Newell had not cited evidence linking any journalist at the Record to the alleged breach. The local judge who reportedly signed the warrant authorizing the raids, Laura Viar, hasn’t publicly commented.
Press freedom advocates reacted to the police’s attempted justification with scorn.
Reuters, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press were among more than 30 entities who sent a letter to Marion’s police chief, Gideon Cody, demanding that his agency return all seized materials to the Meyers’ newspaper.
“Your department’s seizure … has substantially interfered with the Record’s [constitutionally]-protected newsgathering,” the letter said. “And the department’s actions risk chilling the free flow of information in the public interest more broadly.”
In its own statement, the free expression group PEN America said, “Law enforcement’s sweeping raid on the Marion County Record … almost certainly violates federal law [and] puts the paper’s ability to publish the news in jeopardy.
“Such egregious attempts to interfere with news reporting cannot go unchecked in a democracy. Law enforcement can, and should, be held accountable for any violations of the Record’s legal rights.”
Eric Meyer has since made comments about what other motives may have fueled the raid on his family’s newspaper and his mother’s home, which reportedly began with a doorknock that Joan thought was lunch being delivered by the Meals on Wheels service for senior citizens.
He told The Handbasket that his paper had been contacted by former colleagues of local police chief Gideon Cody about sexual misconduct claims. The sources would never go on the record, and Meyer’s paper didn’t move on the information. But he said to The Handbasket that one of the seized computers contained the sources’ identities.
Despite the news industry’s vocal support, Eric Meyer told the Eagle he remains “perturbed” about his mom’s last moments.
“What bothers me most is a 98-year-old woman spent her last day on earth … feeling under attack by bullies who invaded her house,” Eric Meyer said.
Who was Joan Meyer? Kansas paper co-owner who rebuked police raid as ‘Hitler tactics’ – and died a day later? ›
Meyer, the 98-year-old co-owner of the local newspaper, died a day after law enforcement raided her home, where she lived with her son, Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer. Her son believes the stress of the unprecedented Aug. 11 raid on her home and the newsroom was a contributing factor in her death.Why did the police raid the Kansas newspaper? ›
A warrant signed by a magistrate about two hours before Friday's raid said that local police sought to gather evidence of potential identity theft and other computer crimes stemming from a conflict between the newspaper and the local restaurant owner, Kari Newell.What did the Kansas City Police patrol experiment 1972 reveal? ›
The Kansas City Preventative Patrol Experiment found that increasing or decreasing the level of police patrol had no impact on crime or public perceptions of crime and did not reduce public fear of crime. In fact, the public was unaware of any change in police patrol at all.What was the Kansas City Police experiment of 1972? ›
The Kansas City experiment was one of the first studies to test a policing hypothesis through use of experimental and control groups. To test the effects of various levels of patrol, the study doubled or tripled the amount of patrol on five police beats, kept it the same on five, and cut it to zero on five.