A search warrant that set the stage for the controversial police raid of a Kansas newspaper last Friday was withdrawn on Wednesday and all of the items that were seized will now be returned.
The withdrawal comes a few days after the Kansas Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation that led to the police raid, which sparked outcry from media advocacy groups and news organizations.
The KBI announced Wednesday afternoon that its investigation will move forward independently “and without review or examination of any of the evidence seized on Friday, Aug. 11.”
On that Friday, police raided the offices of the weekly Marion County Record and the publisher’s home, seizing computers, phones and a file server. The 98 year old publisher, Joan Meyer, collapsed following the raid, and died.
Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey withdrew the warrant Wednesday, saying in a press release that the affidavits established probable cause that a Marion County Record employee may be guilty of unlawful acts with computers, but there wasn’t enough evidence found between the “alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized.”
Press freedom groups like the Freedom of the Press Foundation welcomed the move but said the local police still need to be held accountable for the raid.
“Authorities deserve zero credit for coming to their senses only after an intense backlash from the local and national media and an aggressive letter from the Record’s lawyer,” FPF advocacy director Seth Stern said in a statement.
Caitlin Vogus, FPF deputy director of advocacy, added in the statement that “this raid never should have happened.”
“The Record did nothing wrong, and yet police decided to raid the newsroom and the journalists’ home and take every piece of equipment they have, jeopardizing the Record’s ability to continue publishing,” Vogus said.
Following widespread condemnation from press freedom groups and news organizations, the KBI took over the case as of Monday morning.
The KBI is now the “lead law enforcement agency” on the case, according to The Kansas City Star and the Marion County Record.
“As we transition, we will review prior steps taken and work to determine how best to proceed with the case. Once our thorough investigation concludes, we will forward all investigative facts to the prosecutor for review,” KBI spokesperson Melissa Underwood told the newspaper in a statement.
The KBI, which is headquartered in the state capital, Topeka, did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
The raid on the newspaper in a small central Kansas county shocked First Amendment advocates and journalist associations. In a statement this week, the Society of Professional Journalists condemned what it called “an egregious attack on freedom of the press, the First Amendment and all the liberties we hold dear as journalists.”
The White House on Wednesday expressed concern about the raids.
“They raise a lot of concerns and a lot of questions for us,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “The freedom of the press, that is a core value when we think about our democracy.”
In a Monday night statement, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly expressed support for further investigation into the raid.
“I want to make sure that in the state of Kansas, that we are not violating either individuals’ or press’s constitutional right to free speech,” Kelly said. “We look forward to getting all of the facts out so we know what kind of issue we have.”
The Marion County Record, in covering the raid on its own office and publisher, has said it believes the raids were linked to a dispute between the newspaper and Kari Newell, a local restaurant owner.
Newell accused the newspaper of invading her privacy and illegally accessing information about her, including a 2008 drunken driving conviction against her, the Associated Press reported. She also suggested the newspaper targeted her after she threw Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s co-owner and publisher, and a reporter out of a restaurant during a political event.
Meyer has said in interviews that he thinks the paper’s coverage of local politics played a role in prompting the raids.
Meyer said the Marion County Record was also investigating Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody’s past work with the Kansas City, Missouri, police. Cody led last Friday’s raids.
Reported by VOA