July 14, 2024
Lessons from a police raid on journalists that could have happened anywhere.

The Aug. 11 police raid on a local newsroom in Marion, Kan., drew national press coverage and provoked condemnation from press-freedom groups across the country. For good reason.

The Marion Police Department’s execution of a search warrant on the Marion County Record was not only a likely violation of federal and state law, it struck right to the core of why journalism matters, and why it receives special protections, including the Constitution.

But there’s also a deeper story out of Kansas, one that goes beyond the actions of a single police chief and a single judge in a small midwestern town.

That is the story of decay — of public understanding of journalists and journalism; of the crucial role that independent journalism plays in keeping public servants honest. Of the Bill of Rights and basic civics.

Setting aside the specific legal problems with the Marion search warrant — of which there appear to be many — raids like the one in Kansas couldn’t happen in a place where the bedrock principles of our democracy were properly understood.

But then neither could the dozens of similar affronts to a free press documented in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a joint project of numerous press advocacy organizations. The vast majority of these incidents do not reach the national consciousness. Many don’t even draw a local headline.

Taken as a whole, the Tracker tells a story of a deeper dysfunction that knows no geographic bounds. In deepest-blue San Francisco just four years ago, the police department took a sledgehammer and pickax to the front door of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody before seizing all of his computer equipment and notes — actions authorized by search warrants that, under California law, should never have been sought in the first place, much less approved by judges.

This is not a red-state/blue-state issue. It’s an American issue. As such, it requires an American response — an effort that draws on our rich traditions of local governance, local journalism, and local activism in coordination with big, national voices.

The reaction to Kansas so far serves as a good model, one that press-freedom groups and others have honed in recent years, of necessity. Local and national advocates and press worked in tandem to simultaneously draw attention to Marion, with the Kansas Press Association and the Marion Record itself articulating the stakes and the truly extraordinary moves by the police — but backed by national advocacy groups like Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which mustered their legal expertise and coalition-building skills to provide a broad and legally detailed condemnation of the raid, signed by 36 news organizations and other groups.

But if the fundamental role of the press in maintaining a healthy democracy is to survive, it will require more than big headlines about the most egregious cases. It will require vigilance at the local level — by watchdogs, gadflies, and ordinary citizens. By the local press and local advocacy groups. All of these, but especially local media outlets, need support in the form of subscriptions, contributions and volunteerism. Without that, abuses like Marion will only increase in frequency, outrageousness and scale.

The robust attention paid to the outrageous abuses in Marion County is appropriate. But we shouldn’t mistake Kansas for an aberration, or for something that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. If you want to know what’s the matter with Kansas, take a closer look at home.

David Snyder is the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for open government. 

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