Speaking Personally- It could have happened anywhere
Tue, 08/22/2023 - 4:18pm admin
Amanda Mendez, publisher
Kansas is far away from Willow Springs, but as your own publisher, I am telling you that it could have happened anywhere.
What happened in Marion, Kansas on August 11 was illegal. The local police department served a search warrant and raided the news office of the Marion County Record as well as the home of its owner. They took computers, phones, servers, records, and essentially everything the paper needs to function.
Why the police wanted to do so is a complicated story of small-town scandal – the details of which are ultimately unimportant for what I hope to convey here.
Journalists worldwide have covered the ins-and-outs of the raid of the Marion County Record, and I would refer you to The New York Times or the Record’s own account of the narrative for the best information. What I’m hoping you’ll take away from this is how seriously Marion officials abused their power and how this affront is possible in every corner of the nation.
For a perspective on how flagrantly the actions of the Marion police flew in the face of the law, I turned to Willow Springs native, Sandra Davidson (Class of 1964).
“When police arrive with a search warrant and perform a knock-and-enter search on a newsroom, the result can be serious disruption of news production,” she said. “In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that such searches were legal under our Constitution. Congress reacted, passing the Privacy Protection Act of 1980. That law decrees that police can only search newsrooms in extraordinary circumstances. Instead, authorities should use a subpoena that tells journalists to deliver the designated items, thus avoiding a newsroom search. Unfortunately, this procedure is outside the usual way authorities operate, and many officials, including judges, simply do not know about the law.”
“For example, in 1994 I got a call from a student reporter at KOMU-TV, the University of Missouri’s station in Columbia. He told me police had just raided the newsroom, wanting a recording KOMU aired of a suspect phoning from his jail cell and, in effect, confessing to murder. He added that students recorded the raid. I called the prosecuting attorney, a straight shooter who told me he didn’t know the Privacy Protection Act existed. Obviously, the judge who signed the search warrant didn’t, either. The University didn’t pursue the case.”
“Maybe the Marion, Kansas, incident will help spread the word.”
As a small-town newspaper publisher, I devoured every scrap of information about this raid I found. At first, I was scared. Was this brazen seizure in Kansas the first death knell of freedom of the press in America?
Then, I was proud because every journalist I know, and many I respect from across the world, spoke up with one voice to say, decidedly, NO.
This attack on the freedom of information will not stand.
This solidarity on behalf of a small newsroom galvanized me to bring it up to you, dear reader. Kansas is far away from Willow Springs, but as your own publisher, I am telling you that it could have happened anywhere.
Local journalism is the last, and sometimes only, defense in small town America against would-be despots elected to positions of power. Ranging from the poorly informed to the ill-intentioned, these mayors, aldermen, school board members, etc…can and will operate outside the law if they think no one is watching. Not every person in power will try to take advantage, and many in Howell County do take their public service as a sacred duty.
Still, there must and should always be a healthy tension between the news media and those in power.
How many times this year alone have I reported violations of the Sunshine Law or Missouri statutes by local governing bodies? As the esteemed Ms. Davidson points out, sometimes, the people in power simply do not know about the law. So I make it my business to watch and report and let you, the public, decide what should be done with these officials.
I do so whenever I must because I have the right.
And more importantly, I do so because I have your support. Simply by reading this, you are doing your part to support local news, but the events this month in Marion make it clear to me that we must do better nationwide to preserve the freedom and the prestige of the press.
Hold me and every newsman to a high standard of integrity, honesty, bravery, and quality. Demand real stories about the issues you care about. Do not be content with fluff and press releases. If we fail you, write to us and let us know.
We cannot let local journalism die. There is no journalism without the reader.
Sandy Davidson is the valedictorian of the Willow Springs High School Class of 1964. She is a professor Emeritus at the Mizzou School of Journalism and an adjunct professor at Mizzou’s Law School. She is the attorney for the Columbia Missourian, the Web-first community newspaper produced by the School of Journalism. Davidson has been active in the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, previously serving as chair of the Law division.
Amanda Mendez is the publisher and owner of Howell County News. She is an enthusiast of all things Ozarks and old-fashioned.