Rod Miller: Police Misbehavior And The Critical Role Of The Free Press

Columnist Rod Miller writes, "Cowboy State Daily's Clair McFarland has broken a couple of stories about police misbehavior in Thermopolis. We are watching a real life instance of the power of a free press play out before our eyes in real time."

RM
Rod Miller

October 11, 20234 min read

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Back in August, I wrote a column about the Marion County Record, that small Kansas weekly that an overly-zealous chief of police with a closet full of skeletons had raided and shut down.   

My son Vic got me a subscription to the Record, and my first copy came in the mail a couple days ago. We’re both certified First Amendment zealots and a subscription seemed to be a great way to show solidarity with a newspaper that stood up to government at considerable cost to itself.  

My copy of the Record was pretty much what any weekly newspaper around the country looks like. Sixty percent or so of the column inches were dedicated to local and regional news. The Record has a small but busy staff, with writers and the editor each having several by-lines.  

The feature stories all centered around the annual celebration of Old Settlers Day, when locals honor the memory of the first homesteaders who came to southern Kansas, bringing with them the plows and printing presses that changed the character of the countryside.  

Advertisements, public notices and classifieds filled out the rest of the paper, a ratio common to print journalism these days.  

As I held my copy of the Record in my hand, I mused that it was positive proof in newsprint that the paper has withstood the attack by a corrupt cop and a jerkwater judge who tried to shut it down. It showed up in my mailbox a few months after local government tried to silence it.  

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I found it a satisfying irony that the help-wanted ads included a notice of an open position for a new chief of police. Just a gentle reminder to the Powers That Be that a free press is the central nervous system for a healthy body politic.  

With your kind permission, I’ll switch gears for a moment and talk about Cowboy State Daily. I try to avoid the self-congratulatory onanism that attends writing about one’s own publication in that publication, but this is important.  

CSD’s Clair McFarland has broken a couple of stories about police misbehavior in Thermopolis and it looks for all the world that this story has long legs and will be updated frequently.  

I’ll point out the crucial importance of independent journalism in our civic life together. When a free press turns on the light, the roaches scatter.  

Several months ago, when the cop in question got out of the hospital after being shot, he was given a hero’s welcome and paraded around town as a stalwart who stands between the citizens and the gangsters. A citizen, in this case the home occupant, died in the gunfight.  

When Clair recently broke the news that the cop caused the shootout himself by breaking down a citizen’s door without a warrant, the nature of the story took an abrupt turn.  

She followed that revelation by soliciting comments from law enforcement and legislators about whether a vagueness in a caveat to Wyoming’s Castle Doctrine law contributed to the tragic situation. These questions proved uncomfortable indeed to the public officials, but are crucial to an informed citizenry that wants to stay safe in their homes.  

So friends and neighbors, we are watching a real life instance of the power of a free press play out before our eyes in real time. And it's not in Kansas, but in Wyoming.  

Bear in mind, as you follow that story coming out of Thermopolis, that entrenched power will always try to muzzle or silence a free press unless the press says what the powerful want it to say. Without a free press to flip the light switch, the darkness can be dangerous.  

I’ll close with my oft-quoted advice from Sen. Ransom Stoddard of Shinbone, and the erstwhile copyboy of the Shinbone Star when he said in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," “An honest newspaper is the best history book.” 

Rod Miller can be reached at: rodsmillerwyo@yahoo.com

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Rod Miller

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