Discover more from Letters from an American
August 12, 2023
In Marion, Kansas, yesterday morning, four local police officers and three sheriff’s deputies raided the office of the Marion County Record newspaper; the home of its co-owners, Eric Meyer and his 98 year old mother, Joan Meyer; and the home of Marion vice mayor Ruth Herbel, 80. They seized computers, cell phones, and other equipment. Joan Meyer was unable to eat or sleep after the raid; she collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home.
The search warrant alleged there was probable cause to believe the newspaper, its owners, or the vice mayor had committed identity theft and unlawful computer acts against restaurant owner Kari Newell, but Magistrate Laura Viar appears to have issued that warrant without any affidavit of wrongdoing on which to base it. Sherman Smith, Sam Bailey, Rachel Mipro, and Tim Carpenter of the nonprofit news service Kansas Reflector reported that federal law protects journalists from search and seizure and requires law enforcement instead to subpoena materials they want.
On August 2, Newell had thrown Meyer and a Marion County Record reporter out of a meeting with U.S. Representative Jake LaTurner (R-KS), and the paper had run a story on the incident. Newell had complained on her personal Facebook page,
On August 7, Newell publicly accused the newspaper of illegally getting information about a drunk-driving charge against her and giving it to Herbel. Eric Meyer says the information—which was accurate—was sent to him and Herbel over social media and that he decided not to publish it out of concerns it was leaked to help Newell’s estranged husband in divorce proceedings. Those same concerns made him take the story to local police. Newell accused the newspaper of violating her rights and called Meyer to accuse him of identity theft.
Meyer told journalist Marisa Kabas of The Handbasket that the paper was also investigating the new police chief for sexual misconduct, and he noted that the identities of people making those allegations are on the computers that got seized. “I may be paranoid that this has anything to do with it,” Meyer told Kabas, “but when people come and seize your computer, you tend to be a little paranoid.”
On Friday, Newell wrote on her Facebook page: “Journalists have become the dirty politicians of today, twisting narrative for bias agendas, full of muddied half-truths…. We rarely get facts that aren’t baited with misleading insinuations.”
Meyer worked at the Milwaukee Journal for 20 years and then taught journalism at the University of Illinois, retiring from there. He doesn’t take a salary from the Marion County Record. He told Kabas, “I’m doing this because I believe that newspapers still have a place in the world and that the worst thing that a newspaper could do was shrink its reporting staff, stop reporting, fill itself with non-news when there’s still news out there. And if you do a good job of providing news, you will get readers…. [W]e’re doing this because we care about the community.”
He said he worries that people are afraid to participate in politics because “there’s gonna be consequences and they’re going to be negative.”
The Marion County Record will sue the city and the individuals involved in the raid, which, the paper wrote in its coverage, “legal experts contacted were unanimous in saying violated multiple state and federal laws, including the U.S. Constitution, and multiple court rulings.” “Our first priority is to be able to publish next week,” Meyer said, “but we also want to make sure no other news organization is ever exposed to the Gestapo tactics we witnessed today. We will be seeking the maximum sanctions possible under law.”
Executive director of the Kansas Press Association Emily Bradbury noted “An attack on a newspaper office through an illegal search is not just an infringement on the rights of journalists but an assault on the very foundation of democracy and the public’s right to know. This cannot be allowed to stand.”
Americans have taken up this cause before. In 1836 the House of Representatives passed a resolution preventing Congress from taking up any petition, memorial, resolution, proposition, or paper relating “in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery or the abolition of slavery.” This “gag rule” outraged antislavery northerners. Rather than quieting their objections to enslavement, they increased their discussion of slavery and stood firm on their right to those discussions.
In that same year, newspaperman Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had been publishing antislavery articles in the St. Louis Observer, decided to move from the slave state of Missouri across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois. He suggested to his concerned neighbors that his residence in a free state would enable him to write more about religion than about slavery. But, he added in a statement to them, “As long as I am an American citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write and to publish whatever I please, being amenable to the laws of my country for the same.”
Lovejoy became a symbol of the freedom of the press.
When “a committee of five citizens” in Alton, appointed by “a public meeting,” asked Lovejoy if he intended to print sentiments to which they objected, he refused to “admit that the liberty of the press and freedom of speech, were rightfully subject to other supervision and control, than [the laws of] the land.” He reminded them that “‘the liberty of our forefathers has given us the liberty of speech,’ and that it is ‘our duty and high privilege, to act and speak on all questions touching this great commonwealth.’” “[E]very thing having a tendency to bring this right into jeopardy, is eminently dangerous as a precedent,” he said.
Popular pressure had proved unable to make Lovejoy stop writing, and on August 21, 1837, a mob drove off the office staff of the Alton Observer by throwing rocks through the windows. Then, as soon as the staff had fled, the mob broke into the newspaper’s office and destroyed the press and all the type.
On August 24, Lovejoy asked his supporters to help him buy another press. They did. But no sooner had it arrived than a gang of ten or twelve “ruffians” broke into the warehouse where it had been stored for the night and threw it into the river.
When yet another press arrived in early November, Lovejoy had it placed in a warehouse on the riverbank. That night, about thirty men attacked the building, demanding the press be handed over to them. The men inside refused and fired into the crowd, wounding some of the attackers. The mob pulled back but then returned with ladders that enabled them to set fire to the building’s roof. When Lovejoy stepped out of the building to see where the attackers were hiding, a man shot him dead. As the rest of the men in the warehouse ran to safety, the mob rushed into the building and threw the press out of the window. It broke to pieces when it hit the shore, and the men threw the pieces into the Mississippi River.
But the story did not end there. Elijah Lovejoy’s younger brother, Owen, saw Elijah shot. "I shall never forsake the cause that has been sprinkled with my brother's blood," he declared. He and another brother wrote the Memoir of Elijah P. Lovejoy, impressing on readers the importance of what they called “liberty of the press” in the discussion of public issues.
Owen then turned to politics, and in 1854 he was elected to the Illinois state legislature to stand against those southerners who had silenced his brother. The following year, voters elected him to Congress. His increasing prominence brought him political friends, including an up-and-coming lawyer who had arrived in Illinois from Kentucky by way of Indiana, Abraham Lincoln.
Joseph C. and Owen Lovejoy, Memoir of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy; who was murdered in defence of liberty of the press,” (New York: John S. Taylor, 1838), at https://www.siue.edu/lovejoy-library/tas/Abbott_716.pdf