When the police chief of Marion, Kansas raided the office of the small local newspaper a week ago, he did nothing more than reinforce James Madison’s truism that the freedom of the press must not be abridged.
And he proved once again why light must be shone on political power to prevent that power from becoming tyrannical.
Here’s the Cliff Notes version of the event. The Marion County Record, a newspaper established a hundred and fifty years ago, had been investigating the background of the newly-hired police chief and had uncovered some sketchy details in his past.
Naturally, this made the new head cop nervous. So he got the local magistrate to sign a search warrant to seize what information the Record had on him. As a side benefit to the judge, a raid on the paper would also prevent the Record from publishing her own multiple DUIs.
But there was no probable cause affidavit filed to justify the warrant, as is customary. It's almost like the cop and the judge just said, “Lets go get these guys so they don’t publish embarrassing stuff about us”.
Armed with the iffy warrant, police raided the Record’s office and the home of the publisher. They confiscated computers, cell phones and files and hauled everything off the evidence room, effectively shutting the paper down.
In the course of the raid on the publisher’s home, which he shared with his elderly mother, the cops’ gestapo tactics so stressed the old lady that she died the next day.
And the whole case against the Record is so weak, it’ll almost surely get thrown out.
The raid drew national attention to Marion, Kansas and now national media are examining the actions of the cop and the judge. And all the secrets that they wanted to keep hidden are splashed across pages that millions of Americans read, not just the readers in a small Kansas community.
One would like to think that this sort of strong-arm nonsense couldn’t happen in Wyoming. Wyoming media outlets have pretty good armor, not just in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but also in Article 1, Section 20 of the Wyoming Constitution.
The Cowboy State, at least on paper, is pretty truth-friendly.
But who knows? It is no secret that politicians and law enforcement don’t always want citizens to know what they are doing on the citizens’ behalf. Power is too often scared spitless of truth.
The White House suing the New York Times to prevent release of the Pentagon Papers is an example. Big Tobacco threatening network news to keep from the American public the fact that tobacco kills people is another. There are many, many more instances.
Nevertheless, the truth eventually is revealed and the resiliency of the free press increases. The cop and the judge in Kansas should have known this fact. Now they do.
A free press has a profound responsibility, not to any government but to every citizen. It doesn’t serve nor answer to power, but to people. A free press is the central nervous system of a healthy body politic and institutions of ambitious power hate that fact
But don’t think that the free press is monolithic, that it represents a homogenized point of view. There are a multitude of tongues in the free press, representing the myriad range of opinions among the citizens. Thank God and Hunter Thompson!
When any organ of government – or anyone else, for that matter – tries to abridge the freedom of the press, they are trying to lobotomize our body politic.
Our free society requires a multitude of voices for it to thrive. As justice Learned Hand has said, “right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues than through any kind of authoritative selection”. A free press has the responsibility to citizens to provide those voices.
Even though the delivery method is changing from paperboy to wifi, the responsibility remains the same. A free press throws out a chorus of voices and viewpoints, and trusts the reader to make their own responsible decisions about what they read.
Whether through newsprint or through a screen, the accountability is the same – speaking truth to power.
So, even though the Marion County Record lands on Kansas porches in the morning, they have taken one for the whole Fourth Estate team. Here’s hoping they bounce back stronger and ready to get back in the fight.