What police chief in his right mind would order a raid on a newspaper office?
Imagine a world where a local newspaper makes the local police chief mad because the editor discovers a long-forgotten drunk driving conviction during a divorce case of a local business owner. The newspaper never publishes the story because of trouble verifying information but the police chief gets a local judge to issue a search warrant allowing the seizure of newspaper records, including the computer on which the identity of the newspaper’s confidential source on the DWI conviction is stored.
Then the elderly publisher dies of a heart attack.
Is that something out of Russia where political opponents of the government have a tendency to die? Or Latin America, where a conservative investigative journalist running for president in a cartel-infested country got assassinated by gunmen at one of his own campaign events?
No. It’s in a small town about an hour away from Wichita, Kansas, where the local weekly newspaper, the Marion County Record which for decades has been co-owned by an award-winning former journalism professor who decided he’d rather run a newspaper than teach others how to write for newspapers, managed to antagonize the powers-that-be in town, and generated a response that simply should not happen in America.
To quote the Washington Post’s coverage of this case: “Police raids on news organizations are almost unknown in the United States and are illegal under most circumstances under state and federal law. ‘This shouldn’t happen in America,’ said Emily Bradbury, the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, in an interview Sunday. She added: ‘Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy. … We’re not going to let this stand on our watch.’”
Court-ordered searches of newspaper offices are almost unheard of in America, and for good reason. We have our First Amendment, as well as our Constitutional protections against arbitrary searches and seizures and against excessive bail, because of a notorious case in colonial New York City where the corrupt governor threw a newspaper publisher in jail in 1735 for exposing his corruption. English common law at that time didn’t provide the protections we have today, but in 1736, the year after John Peter Zenger had been thrown into jail, a colonial jury engaged in jury nullification by refusing to enforce existing libel law and freed Zenger after only a few minutes of deliberation, believing his…